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Justice Department grant process gets Waxman's attention

Reports allege the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention awarded noncompetitive grants.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is investigating how a Justice Department agency awarded grants in fiscal 2007, when most federal agencies operated with a freer hand under the yearlong earmark moratorium Democrats imposed.

Waxman wrote to Attorney General Michael Mukasey March 13 requesting a briefing no later than Friday -- and related documents by April 4 -- in response to reports that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention awarded noncompetitive grants in fiscal 2007 to less-qualified applicants.

Citing a recent investigation by the trade publication Youth Today, Waxman noted that in fiscal 2007 the the office awarded a $500,000 grant to the World Golf Foundation, even though its application was ranked lower than 38 other bids in a review done by career Justice Department officials.

The foundation is the parent organization of The First Tee, a popular program among lawmakers with an aim to "promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf" for young people. The group received a $3 million earmark in the fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill last year, which received criticism from conservatives who argued such items demonstrate Congress should not be directing federal funds to local interests.

As the Justice grant indicates, the administration can pick similar winners and losers, and Waxman's letter is more striking because he has sworn off requesting earmarks for his district this year.

Waxman said the situation was brought to light by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a freshman who complained that a worthy applicant in his district was unfairly shut out of the grant-making process in fiscal 2007. An aide to Walz said his interest was piqued when OJJDP ignored a request to direct money to the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University, even though it ranked fourth out of more than 100 applicants in the agency's review.

The center trains social workers, teachers, nurses, police officers and others to detect and respond to signs of child abuse. The funding was dropped when the OJJDP administrator made the final decisions. Walz and other Minnesota lawmakers successfully restored about $1.2 million for the center in the fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill, including $446,000 funded through OJJDP.

Much of the Youth Today investigation was focused on OJJDP Administrator Robert Flores, who it said decided to award grants to certain favored organizations regardless of how competitive bids ranked. To that end, Waxman has requested access to all communications to and from Flores regarding fiscal 2007 OJJDP grant awards, as well as broader access to all related documents about grant applicants, amounts awarded, and internal staff reviews ranking the bids.