More federal news. Well, maybe it’s not news, exactly–Youth Today reported on it back in January, with an update in early March, and I’ve sat on it for a little while without commenting. Which shouldn’t reflect on the quality of the story, since it’s such a good scoop, but rather on my scattered brain.
Youth Today editor Patrick Boyle, who broke the story, has done something only top-notch investigative reporters do: earn the attention of government watchdog Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In the January issue of Youth Today, Boyle ran a long story with the headline “For Juvenile Justice, a Panel of One” (links to this and other stories on the paper’s site are available only to subscribers; if you’re interested in reading it, consider coughing up the $30 annual subscription or sign up for free ten-day temporary access).
The story exposed rampant cronyism on the part of J. Robert Flores, a Bush appointee who has headed the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a Justice Department agency, since 2002. Last spring, Boyle reported, the OJJDP posted a request for proposals that was surprisingly broad and that made a generous amount of money available to prospective grantees. “After years of seeing almost all of its discretionary funds eaten up by congressional earmarks, the agency now had millions of dollars to award through competitive bidding, thanks to the slashing of nearly all earmarks in fiscal 2007,” Boyle wrote.
Juvenile justice organizations flocked, but their enthusiasm was misplaced. “A dozen organizations won grants without competitive bidding,” Boyle noted. The scoring system to assess bids for competitive grants was problematic (managed by agency staff, lacking in peer review, rushed), and anyway, it was disregarded. None of the six top-scoring organizations were awarded grants; twenty-one bids that scored 90 or higher (out of 100) were similarly denied. Meanwhile, Flores handed the bulk of the cash to lower-scoring organizations he deemed his favorites.
Word has gotten out among organizations that scored high but didn’t win; some of them are furious and want OJJDP or Congress to explain the process. “We all play by the rules,” said Earl Dunlap, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, whose losing bid ranked second out of 129. “The rules for Flores are pretty much whatever he decides when he gets out of bed in the morning.”
Flores, Boyle wrote, “has repeatedly pushed to get agency money to organizations that fit his priorities, which include faith-based programs and those that combat child sexual victimization.” Thus the low-scoring Best Friends Foundation (79.5), headed by the wife of right-wing moral crusader (and gambling addict!) Bill Bennett, won more than $1 million for its abstinence-only/anti-drug curriculum. Enough Is Enough, which combats sexual predation online–admittedly a worthy cause, but not quite in line with the historical mission of the OJJDP–took $750,000. The faith-based Victory Outreach Special Services got a windfall of $1.2 million but had to turn down the grant because, Boyle noted, “it doesn’t have the organizational capacity to carry it out.” Meanwhile, well-known, well-reputed, high-scoring organizations that do have the capacity to serve honest-to-goodness juvenile justice needs–like Dunlap’s National Partnership for Juvenile Services and Barry Krisberg’s National Council on Crime and Delinquency, among many others–got a big bag of bubkes.
When Minnesota Democratic Representative Tim Walz got word of this scandal, he requested an investigation into possible violation of the OJJDP bidding process. (Winona State University, whose National Child Protection Training Center ranked fourth but received no grant money, is in his district.) As Boyle reported in a follow-up article, Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform ably stepped in on March 13. In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Waxman requested documents relating to “grantmaking policies and practices” in the OJJDP, including a list of applicants for Fiscal Year 2007, records and notes on the evaluation process, official decision memos and all communications to or from Flores regarding the 2007 grants. Mukasey and Flores have until April 4 to hand over the paperwork. Hearings, presumably, will follow.
“We should not be surprised, in this final year of the George W. Bush presidency, that the reputation of the Justice Department has reached a low point,” Scott Horton recently wrote in a startling essay in Harper’s. Horton was writing primarily about the US Attorneys scandal but also about the transformation of the civil rights division into a vote-suppression goon squad, the Rovian witch-burning of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman (who was released from jail last week pending appeal), and the challenge of trimming back a dangerously expanded executive branch.
Boyle’s exposé adds further evidence to back up Horton’s argument about how thoroughly politicized the Justice Department has become in the Bush era, and how damaging this has been for American justice. Waxman’s hearings will, hopefully, shed some light on Flores’s conduct and restore some accountability to the OJJDP grantmaking process. But we’ll need more than hearings to restore credibility to the Justice Department. The country desperately needs a political tidal wave to crash down on Washington in November and capsize the current ship of state, flushing out detritus like Flores and so much else. It will be the task of the next administration to put the pieces back together and reset the course.