Tag Archives: Justice Department

TPM on DOJ Investigation

In today’s episode of TPM TV, Josh Marshall (who won the prestigious Polk award for exposing the US Attorneys scandal) explains why yesterday’s report on illegal hiring practices at the Justice Department, though focusing narrowly on a small part of a wider investigation, should be read as an “ominous sign” for those who were involved in the firing of the US Attorneys.

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OJJDP Chief of Staff: You’re Fired!

Youth Today‘s Patrick Boyle, who broke the story on the scandalous OJJDP grantmaking process, has an update following last week’s oversight committee hearings. OJJDP chief of staff Michele DeKonty, who took the Fifth rather than submit testimony at the hearings (and who apparently didn’t alert her higher-ups about that decision), has been dismissed. In a brief email to his staff–leaked, I assume, to Boyle–OJJDP administrator J. Robert Flores wrote, “Over the past 2 years I have had the benefit of working with a talented and professional Chief of Staff in Michele DeKonty…. I want to recognize her for her service to America’s children and our Office.” Yeah, I’m all teary-eyed about it, too, Flores. Lace ’em up, pal. You’re next.

Illegal Hiring at the Justice Department

The Justice Department’s inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility released a joint report yesterday investigating allegations of politicized hiring at the DOJ. The report, according to the introduction (a PDF of the whole document is available here), looked into whether “political or ideological affiliations of applicants were improperly considered in the selection of candidates” in two prestigious Justice Department programs: the Attorney General’s Honors Program, for entry-level attorneys, and the Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP), a paid internship. The answer, after extensive research into thousands of applications, email correspondence and other relevant material: yes, indeed. Liberals need not apply.

In 2002, after senior DOJ officials reviewed the honors program, the hiring process was changed dramatically to counteract a perceived over-representation of liberals. Political appointees yanked the recruitment process from the (nonpartisan) career attorneys, who had overseen it for many years, and candidates with liberal organizations on their resumes began to be “deselected” from consideration. In 2002, for example, all members of the liberal American Constitution Society were rejected, while members of the conservative Federalist Society received a 93 percent approval rating. That same year, 43 of 61 applicants affiliated with the Democratic Party were bounced, while 41 of 46 Republican applicants were let in. (You can get a quick overview of the data in this helpful graph from the New York Times.)

The trend continued until 2006, when it accelerated under then-AG Alberto Gonzales. That year, the report notes, “many complaints surfaced after the Screening Committee took weeks, rather than the normal 2 days, to conduct its review, and deselected an unusually large number of seemingly qualified Honors Program and SLIP candidates.” That was also the year that Michael Elston, the Deputy Attorney General’s Chief of Staff–who may also have had a hand in the highly politicized dismissal of US Attorneys–was placed in charge of the Screening Committee. Under Elston’s watch Honors Program candidates whose applications reflected liberal affiliations were deselected at more than three times the rate (55 percent) of those with conservative ties (18 percent) and more than twice the rate of those without any political affiliations (23 percent). The bottom line, according to the audit: “Elston violated federal law and Department policy by deselecting candidates based on their liberal affiliations.” (Elston has since resigned from the Justice Department, along with his colleague and partner in crime Esther Slater McDonald.)

In April 2007, responding to criticisms from within the department–the investigation was prompted by an anonymous letter from DOJ staffers to Congress–the selection process for the honors program and SLIP was revamped, reverting essentially to oversight by career DOJ employees rather than political appointees. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said in a statement yesterday, “The Department overhauled its honors program and summer law intern program hiring processes last year, and I am pleased that the report remarked positively on these institutional changes. I have also made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable.”

That’s promising, I guess. But it’s worth noting that this investigation was only the first in a series of reports on the Bush-era repurposing of the Justice Department as a White House weapon. This report looked at the damage done to upstart and aspiring attorneys at the beginning of their careers; next up, and starring a similar cast of seedy characters, a related investigation into the politicized removal of US Attorneys at the peak of their careers. Most of these guys, remember, were let go because they refused to launch specious investigations into voter fraud that would have damaged Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, or because they successfully prosecuted Republican Congressmen for corruption. That’s not justice; that’s partisan warfare.

Yesterday’s report, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said, “confirms our findings and our fears that the same senior department officials involved with the firing of United States attorneys were injecting improper political motives into the process of hiring young attorneys. I suspect further reports from the inspector general will continue to shed light on the extent to which the Bush administration has allowed politics to affect–and infect–the department’s priorities.”

Investigating Justice

Today’s newspapers may be heading for the great bird cage in the sky by now, but it’s not too late to point out that the Washington Post ran a big piece this morning on investigating the Justice Department’s grantmaking, ahead of Waxman’s hearing. The article does a good job of summarizing the OJJDP scandal, and admirably cites Youth Today for breaking the story about the First Tee golf mentoring program. The piece also brings word that the Justice Department’s inspector general is looking into allegations of an improper hire on the part of OJJDP administrator J. Robert Flores. And OJJDP grants are not the only Justice Department disbursements that may be due for public scrutiny, either, as “members of Congress and watchdog groups are calling on investigators to expand their inquiry into the Byrne Grant program, the federal government’s primary effort to support local crime fighting across the nation.”

“Grant programs are a great tool for distributing federal funds, but only if the process is truly open, fair and competitive,” Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill told the paper. “Some bureaucrat cannot decide on a whim who gets precious tax dollars. It’s insulting to all the programs that work hard on their applications to have merit take a back seat to who you know.”

At stake is more than $150 million in Justice Department grants for fiscal year 2007. Says the Post:

One source said that staff members in the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which oversees the Byrne grants, last year plucked some applications from other categories in a rush to find enough recipients for grants that target violent crime. The winners were awarded Byrne grants and given extra financial incentives in the form of a 10 percent “information sharing enhancement,” according to an Aug. 27, 2007, memo by Domingo S. Herraiz, who leads the bureau.

Herraiz said in the “revised” funding recommendation memo that the unit had received 128 applications, 106 of which were “subsequently externally peer reviewed.”

One of the applications that did not undergo such review was a $296,168 award to the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services for an anti-gang initiative in the city of Columbus, according to the documents….

Separately, POGO and Justice employees are raising questions about another award, in which the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio received $603,000 in Byrne crime prevention money for the “Ohio school alert system.” The Ohio chapter, which did not return phone calls for comment, supported Herraiz’s bid for the Justice Department job four years ago, according to sources familiar with the process.

There’s a common thread here connecting Flores’s grantmaking practices to those at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, both of which are patches on a grotesque quilt that also includes the US Attorneys scandal, the vote suppression campaign in the civil rights division, the Scooter Libby fiasco, the torture memos and so much more. In the Bush era, all justice is politics. The law is elsewhere.

Flores in the Spotlight

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention administrator J. Robert Flores didn’t look very comfortable in the spotlight on ABC’s Nightline last night. Which is understandable, considering investigative correspondent Brian Ross tracked him down on the sidewalk, after Flores denied several interview requests, and put a microphone in Flores’s face, asking him why he saw fit to award a $500,000 federal grant to the World Golf Foundation, a nonprofit with ties to the Bush family, which scored so much lower than so many other grant applicants. And why, Ross wanted to know, did Flores give more than $1 million to a faith-based abstinence-only social group headed by the wife of right-wing poobah Bill Bennett, but deny all funding to higher-rated secular programs for at-risk teens that include condom distribution?

It was a short piece–available in streaming video here–but full of punch and testimony from OJJDP whistleblowers, set to run a day before Congressman Henry Waxman takes up a hearing on the Oversight Committee to discuss OJJDP grantmaking. The hearing has been pushed back a week–which should give mainstream media some time to play catch-up on this important story. And it should give Flores some time to get his story straight; I don’t expect Waxman will allow him to go catatonic like he did on Ross.

For more Juvienation coverage on the scandal, click here and here. And for still more, check the Youth Today website.

House Committee, ABC Nightline, to Discuss OJJDP Grants

The House Committee on Government Oversight, headed by good-government top cop Henry Waxman, will hold a hearing tomorrow morning to discuss the grantmaking process at the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The hearing follows, and may have been prompted by, the top-notch reporting of Youth Today editor Patrick Boyle, who deserves a great deal of credit for uncovering this scandal and bringing it to Waxman’s attention. As I wrote in March, Boyle’s articles

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.

The National Juvenile Defender Center brings word that Youth Today will be broadcasting the hearing live at its website. (For those who want to read more and view the original documents, the site is currently highlighting Boyle’s coverage of the scandal.)

Also, be sure to tune in to ABC’s Nightline tonight (11:30 pm ET/10:30 pm CT) for a segment on the investigation.

UPDATE: From the Youth Today website: “The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today postponed its hearing on grant-making practices at the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) until next week. The hearing had been scheduled for Tuesday, June 10. Youth Today will post information about the new time when it is announced by the committee.”

Clinton Unveils Anti-Crime Agenda

Stumping in Philadelphia ahead of the April 22 primary election, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton unveiled a $4 billion plan to combat crime today. Most important, aside from the fact that she injected the topic into a campaign season that has essentially avoided it, is her call to do away with mandatory five-year sentencing for crack cocaine users. Her “Solutions for Safe & Secure Communities Now” agenda also includes hiring 100,000 new police officers (lifting a page from her husband), allocating $250 million a year to “community-oriented prosecutors,” reducing homicide rates by half and promoting a “tough but fair” approach to probation in order to keep recidivism down.

I haven’t found a transcript of her speech yet, but according to the news reports I’ve read and from reading the release on her campaign website, Clinton didn’t specify how she would fund the plan aside from assigning a commission to “identify savings” from corporate subsidies. Surely, though, reforming sentencing procedures for low-level drug users would help free up resources.

Two tentative thoughts on this: one is political, the other related specifically to juvenile justice. Politically, it’s clear that Clinton has waded into Obama territory with an attempt to nip away a piece of his Philly base. Her smart stand on sentencing reform also happens to be racially sensitive–I assume she hopes it will play well among African-Americans who are basically on board with Obama but not fervidly or who are leaning toward him but still undecided. On that score, it’s a wise move. Remember, though, that this eminently Clintonian strategy reveals very little about Hillary’s actual commitment to the ideas she has just put forward. The fact that she’s finding religion on this stuff at this particular moment, however, says a lot.

With regard to juveniles, Clinton really didn’t get into specifics as far as I can tell. MSNBC tells me she tossed out a hollow bromide about implementing “programs to help at-risk youth.” And as that UPI brief reports, “If elected, she said she would direct the U.S. attorney general to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and to vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities.” More specifically, there’s this, lifted from her website:

Prevent Crime through Early Interventions for At-Risk Kids. Those on the front lines know that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it in the first place. Hillary will partner with states and communities to provide the interventions that will start kids out on the right track and keep them there, including after-school programs, nurse home visitation, and early-intervention mentoring programs.

Crack Down on Child Exploitation Online and Fight Identity Theft. Hillary will direct the Attorney General to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities. She will strengthen and vigorously enforce federal laws against online child exploitation, and she will dramatically increase funding for state Internet Crimes Against Children task forces.

During her speech Hillary cited as a model her husband’s approach to crime prevention. Bill Clinton, let’s not forget, presided over a massive crackdown on juvenile offenders and helped blur the lines between juveniles and adults in the US justice and prison systems–the negative consequences of which we’re seeing in states across the country today. But by highlighting child exploitation (whether from online sexual predators or ID thieves), she seems to be taking a page from the Bush II Administration, as well. As I’ve discussed recently, under Bush the mandate of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has quietly shifted from setting policy on juvenile crime and developing prevention strategies to protecting innocent children from evildoers. It’s as if Hillary is trying to tackle the juvenile superpredators that were in the Justice Department’s crosshairs during her husband’s terms in office and the adult predators that the Justice Department has been battling during Bush’s tenure. In both cases, the scourge is for the most part phantasmic. When you take an honest look, it becomes clear that the real priorities are elsewhere. Which presents Barack Obama with an opportunity to correct the record–if he’s up to the task.