The Spectacle Blog

NYT: Give more tax dollars to the wasteful Legal Services Corporation

By on 8.25.11 | 12:28PM

There may be 15,000 lawyers who "could be using their legal expertise to help some of those who need representation" with "with financial support from government and the legal profession," reports an editorial from the New York Times (without citation, which I found anyway here). So how can we fix it? Giving money to an organization that steals from the poor and gives to themselves: The Legal Services Corporation.

The Legal Services Corporation, created by Congress, gives out federal grants that provide the bulk of support for legal aid to the poor. Over the decades, that budget has shrunk - it was $404 million in 2011, about one-third less than it was 15 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed reducing that to $300 million for 2012. The cut would be devastating; the budget should, instead, be increased.

Record scratch. What? The Legal Services Corporation is a trainwreck. Part of why its budget has shrunk has nothing to do with contempt for the poor, but instead because the organization has wasted so much of the taxpayers' money. In March, an official was sentenced to 22 months in prison for embezzling $188,000 from the Western Pennsylvania Legal Services Corp.

This isn't an isolated incident either. How else to explain one inspector general's report:

The whistle-blowing and the questioning of expenses are sensitive issues since the board that governs LSC considered firing then-Inspector General Kirt West for exposing embarrassing expenditures on behalf of LSC officials in 2006. He found that the officials had charged LSC for the $14 Death by Chocolate desserts and for limousine service from LSC's Georgetown headquarters to Capitol Hill. Mr. West also said LSC was paying as much as $7 million too much in rent for its Georgetown address. The discussions about his ouster sent shock waves through the agency a few years ago.

Or, more recently, this:

The inspector general concluded that California Indian Legal Services wasted $6,384 by booking the 136 rooms at the casino hotel that were never used.

Mr. Grassley's office said it had learned that at least two contracts were modified from their normal language to allow "double-dipping" on the part of LSC headquarters workers who also were working for one of LSC's federally funded programs. The senator's office also noted his office continues to get information and allegations from whistle-blowers inside the LSC.

And even more recently:

Even where no apparent acts of lawbreaking have been committed, LSC spending on occasion has been out of synch with its anti-poverty mission. The latest report by the corporation's in-house overseer, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), indicates that LSC Vice President Karen Sarjeant and several deputies attended an LSC-American Bar Association conference in Phoenix that cost taxpayers $26,000. The meetings were held at the four-star Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs resort, which features hiking trails, a golf course and a mountaintop restaurant where the chef's feature runs $69 a plate. This follows on the heels of several of last year's revelations of LSC-funded excess: The Ft. Worth-based Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas spent nearly $190,000 on a new marble exterior façade; the Legal Aid Defender Association of Detroit displayed a pattern of "unsupported travel payments, unsupported cost reallocations and duplicate postings," in one case overpaying a contractor by $500,000; and California Indian Legal Services spent $80,000 on questionable costs, half of which was related to one conference.

The management has so browbeaten its staff against whistleblowing, the legal advice available from the organization from 2005-2009 was severely hampered. Meaning that whatever money wasn't spent on extravagant resorts was spent on ineffective legal advice.

...[T]he federally funded corporation's chief watchdog alleges in a soon-to-be-released report that LSC senior management for years intimidated its staff attorneys, interfering with their "ability - and ethical obligation - to provide their best independent legal advice."

Lawyers in LSC's Office of Legal Affairs "reported that at various times they felt ‘intimidated,' ‘undermined,' and ‘brow-beaten.' Perhaps most troubling was that the General Counsel was put in a position where he felt he might be placing his job in jeopardy if he was to freely give his independent legal judgment where that conflicted with what management wanted him to say," according to the report obtained by the Center.

The report concludes the atmosphere left LSC without the ability to get sound legal advice on important issues between 2005 and 2009, but says the environment has improved markedly in the last few months under an acting president.

If you care about the poor, this is a travesty. Bureaucrats are siphoning money away from those who really need it. There's a reason we shouldn't increase funding for the LSC, and that's because we care about the poor.

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