The Price of Political Favoritism and Cronyism: Lost Lives and Teenage Suicides

kids_vista_.jpg In the broader scheme of things, the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is a fairly obscure agency. By law its core missions are to decrease the disproportional numbers of minority children incarcerated, prevent teenage delinquency, and act to remove children from adult jails, where they are at high risk for both sexual assault and suicide. But the agency also doles out more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal grant money every year-with little congressional oversight or attention from the public. But instead of the money being spent for what Congress intended it, the agency’s funding more recently flowed to programs with political, social or religious connections to the White House. The agency’s new priorities include encouraging teenage abstinence and promoting golf to inner city kids.

flores.jpg The favoritism and politicization in the awarding of grants by OJJDP would ordinarily be unremarkable compared to such higher profile examples of what congressional critics describe as cronyism by the Bush administration– except for the staggering human consequences. To fund his new priorities, J. Robert Flores, the administrator of OJJDP has cut funding for the training of corrections officers to prevent the physical and sexual abuse of incarcerated children. He has cut funds for a program to counsel rape victims that had been praised by President Bush. He has cut funds to prevent the incarceration of mentally ill or mentally retarded children. And he has cut funding for programs to prevent the suicide of gay and lesbian children.

Flores’ tenure as head of Justice’s OJJDP and the favorism and cronyism which at least a half dozen subordinates and superiors have alleged was the subject of a recent Nightline broadcast which I helped report with ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and reporters Anna Schecter and Maddy Sauer. Tomorrow morning, Flores will be questioned under oath about all of this before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

And my colleague Anna has a story out this afternoon disclosing that Flores is also the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General:

The DOJ Inspector General has launched an investigation into fancy trips around the world taken by J. Robert Flores, the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which always included golf and/or tennis…

“Flores would golf during the day while on official travel around the country on tax payer funds,” said Scott Peterson, a former staff member at OJJDP who traveled with Flores on various occasions.

An OIG investigator questioned one staff member about Flores’ travel and about an ex-Colonel in the Honduran army hired by Flores who at one time ran for president of Honduras.

The staffer said the Human Resources Department [of DOJ] was concerned that giving access to the DOJ computer system to a non-US citizen and a former Honduran Colonel could be dangerous for security reasons.

Fonseca, whose Honduran military career spanned three decades, was contracted to work on faith-based and gang issues…

Fonseca attended Church with Flores, according to DOJ staffers, and is married to Deborah Lynne De Moss, a major GOP contributor. Fonseca himself donated $2,000 to Bush in 2004, the same year he was hired, and reportedly raised about $50,000 more on behalf of the president…

In a farewell to his colleagues in July of 2007, Fonesca wrote in an email: “It is my hope and prayer that the joy and peace of Jesus Christ will be real to each on of you.”

Historians are already arguing whether the Bush administration has engaged in cronyism and favoritism at the expense of professionalism and competence. Presidents of both political parties are routinely accused by those in the opposition of stacking the government with their ideological or political loyalists. But the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina and the reconstruction of Iraq, the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, and the nomination of Harriett Miers to the Supreme Court raise questions as to whether during the Bush presidency, as Paul Krugman has written in the New York Times, “politicization and cronyism have become standard operating procedure throughout the federal government.”

bush_golf.jpg Setting aside its traditional mission, Flores’ office awarded a $500,000 federal grant last year to the World Golf Association. In explaining why he overrode his career staff in awarding the grant, Flores explained: “We need something… to engage the gangs and the street kids. Golf is the hook.” Flores awarded the grant despite the fact that the group’s grant proposal rated 47th best out of 104 applicants. The honorary chairman the Golf Association’s First Tee program is former George Herbert Walker Bush.

In a draft of his testimony to be given to Congress tomorrow, Flores has decided to come out swinging against those who criticize the grant to the World Golf Association, claiming that they are “biased against the wealthy.” Flores wrote in the draft testimony that he believes that the grant has been “pilloried because it was tied to golf, and I assume for those who are biased against the wealthy, because it has historically been a sport of the well-to-do.”

Flores also overruled his professional staff and awarded a million dollar grant to the Best Friends Foundation, an organization that promotes sexual abstinence. Best Friends ranked 53rd out of 104 grant applicants. Additionally, the organization refused to participate in a congressionally mandated study into the effectiveness of abstinence programs for teens.

In assessing Best Friends’ grant application, one reviewer later said that their “application was illogical. Its approach made no sense. And it didn’t have a coherent theme to it.”

How then did Best Friends obtain its grant? The founder and president of Best Friends is Elayne Bennett. Her husband, Bill Bennett, had been, respectively, the Secretary of Education during the Reagan administration and the drug czar for the first Bush administration. Now at days, of course, Bill Bennett spends most of his time as a cable television personality supporting the policies of the current Bush administration Moreover, funding sexual abstinence for teenagers has been a priority for the White House.

While Best Friends and the World Golf Association received their grants, more than forty other organizations that had received higher ratings from Justice Department reviewers received no federal money at all. Those denied grants included organizations that train youth corrections officers, counsel rape victims, and work to prevent suicide among gay and lesbian youth.

A program to help troubled teens in San Diego, Vista, was ranked number two by the staff out of 202 applicants in its category of prevention and intervention but was turned down for a grant to help deal with inner city teen violence in San Diego. Why was its grant turned down? Justice Department employees said Flores did not like the fact that group distributed condoms to the kids the program serves.

Often times, effective programs had their funds curtailed for ideological reasons. Even the Girl Scouts was not immune. When one of Flores’ superiors wanted to fund a Girl Scouts program to serve girls whose mothers were incarcerated, Flores objected because the group had ties to Planned Parenthood.

Another program, designed to train adult guards to deal with teens in custody, also was denied federal money even though it was ranked by the staff number 2 out of 104 in its category.

“What Flores did in this situation is he just stomped on the heads of kids who are very much at risk and in trouble in this country,” said Earl Dunlap, who runs the guard training program for the National Partnership for Juvenile Services.

Another group that was turned down for an OJJDP grant– despite the strong recommendations of career Department employees that it be awarded one was the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a Washington D.C. based advocacy group for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Among other things, RAINN runs a telephone hotline for victims of rape and sexual assault, which has put hundreds of thousands of victims together with local rape crisis centers. RAINN ranked 14th best among 104 prospective grantees in the category in which it applied. The group directly competed against the World Golf Association, which was ranked 47th in the competition, and Best Friends, which ranked 51st.

Flores has refused to answer questions about why he turned overruled his staff in funding RAINN. One OJJDP employee said Flores expressed concerns to him that some rape victims might possibly be counseled as to how to obtain abortions by rape counseling centers which RAINN refers those who contact the organization’s telephone hot line. President Bush, however, has publicly praised the organization, as have conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.

But most importantly, Flores’ office is by law supposed to take a leading role in removing kids from adult jails, where they are sexually assaulted and at high risk for suicide. Indeed, that policy objective was central to the OJJDP’s creation during the Carter administration.

In 1986, the Reagan administration’s Administrator of OJJDP, Al Regnery resigned after being confronted with allegations that he, like Flores, had disregarded the recommendations of his career staff and federal regulations to award grants for political or ideological reasons. Regnery awarded grant money to the dean of the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College to devise a high-school course on the Constitution. He awarded $789,000 to a former songwriter for “Captain Kangaroo” to study pornographic cartoons.

Regnery had also been asked by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III to informally spearhead the Regan administration’s anti-pornography campaign. Regnery provided the initial funding to the President’s Commission on Pornography with OJJDPF funds diverted from juvenile crime prevention programs.

kids_jail.jpg But most of all, Regnery ignored the federal law to act to remove children from adult jails. Regnery and his boss, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese believed that jailing children with adults was a deterrent to crime. The Reagan administration purposely did little to urge state governments to comply with the law.

The consequences to children were devastating. When incarcerated with adults, children are subjected to physical and sexual assaults, raped, and even murdered. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, for the year 2005, 21% of sexual assault victims in jails were juveniles even though kids only constitute less than 1% of the nation’s incarcerated population.

But even more tragic, locking up children with adults in jails and prisons often leads a significant number to commit suicide. According to one federal study, children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons commit suicide at 36 times the rate that they do when they are locked up with other juveniles.

With Regnery’s resignation, OJJDP returned to its mission of removing children from adult jails. But during Flores’ current tenure under President Bush, the removal of children from adult jails has once again become less of a priority and children are again at risk. Grant money and staff resources have instead been devoted to programs to encourage abstinence, golf and further other political priorities of the White House.

In the meantime, we have the testimony of at least one victim to the consequences. A teenager held in a county jail wrote a local district attorney saying he did not want to be exposed to adult criminals because of their bad influences:

“A wise person once told me it is not our mistakes in life that define who we are, bur rather how we recover from those mistakes. With that I would just like you to know that I’m going to use this situation to make me a stronger person and a better person.”

Two and one half months later, the boy committed suicide.

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85 Responses to The Price of Political Favoritism and Cronyism: Lost Lives and Teenage Suicides

  1. Matthew says:

    So what is Flores’ association with Bush?

  2. Richard Rivera says:

    What these religious zealots do in the name of Christianity is blasphemy. This guy Flores seems to be taking this to a new low. Disgusting and un-Christian disregard for taxpayer dollars to curry favor with the Christian Right is at once putrid and revolting. This guy will rot in hell for what he has done to the youth that these funds were supposed to help. Just what is Christian about these actions!
    Richard in Denver

  3. Stephen says:

    So what is Flores’ association with idiocy?

  4. trai_dep says:

    I thought that the whole adult-men-raping-vanquished-boys thing was Old Testament, not the New. Hate to bum the Republicans too much, but it’s unclear that Jesus would approve.

  5. greg says:

    “Fonseca himself donated $2,000 to Bush in 2004″

    isn’t it illegal for foriegn nationals to contribute to US candidates running for office?

  6. cwazilla says:

    OK let me get this strait he didnt want to fund a program because it gave out condoms hmm hey arent these ppl always screamin and bitchin about abortion and dont condoms prevent most pregnancies when used right therfore no need for and abortion… and they wont fund one programm because it had somethin to do with planned parenthood because they thought it would advise there clients to mabey get one if they thought it would be best in that situation yet ..arent these ppl always screamin and bitchin aboutfunding for the low income sector and child health care…I-chips seems to boggle the mind with there thinking…………….oh wait I got it we need more soldiers for our 100 yr war with iraq and iran


    Another outrage of corruption so deep we could all drown in it. there is a special place in hell for those who would do harm to children. I would not want this heinous CRIME ON MY CONSCIENCE ……

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    “I would not want this heinous CRIME ON MY CONSCIENCE ……”

    Do you really think these people have consciences? I finally turned to athiesm because of the Bush and his followers, and I feel fine.

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