Tracking The Money Obama Gives To Local Law
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Every year, the Justice Department awards billions of dollars in grants to organizations that deal with law enforcement, everything from local police departments to afterschool programs that teach conflict resolution.
During the Bush administration, people accused Justice Department officials of funneling cash to political allies and personal friends. A House committee and the Justice Department Inspector General both conducted investigations.
So, almost one year into the Obama administration, I decided to look into how the process works today.
Mr. JAKE WIENS (Investigator, Project on Government Oversight): My name is Jake Wiens. I'm an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight.
SHAPIRO: When the Project on Government Oversight started digging into Justice Department grants in 2007, Jake Wiens tried to figure out where the money was going.
Mr. WIENS: We went onto their Web site and tried to look for a list of awardees and it wasn't available at all.
SHAPIRO: You couldn't see who got the grant money from the Justice Department?
Mr. WIENS: You just couldn't see anything. You couldn't really see - and I think 2004 was the latest information available. There is no transparency at all.
SHAPIRO: His organization used the Freedom of Information Act to get records about who received the money. And they found out that many organizations won government dollars automatically. The recipients didn't have to compete with other organizations for the cash. And some grant recipients seems to have ties to the people at Justice who made decisions about where the money should go.
Mr. WIENS: There's this appearance from the outside that favoritism was at play in awarding these grant programs and when you couple that with a lack of transparency, you have the situation where people begin to lose trust in government. They begin to think that, you know, it's in our best interest not to create some good program, which actually has long-term benefit but to cozy up with people that are actually administering these grants.
SHAPIRO: Fast forward to 2010. Today, the Justice Department's Web site lists each specific grant, page by page, updated weekly. I can see, for example, that Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin received $11 million for child protection training programs in the last fiscal year.
Brad Russ if Fox Valley's director for federal programs. He says people receiving government money have also seen changes in the last year.
Mr. BRAD RUSS (Director of Federal Program, Fox Valley Technical College): There has been certainly increased levels of accountability, more reporting, much more of an emphasis upon performance.
SHAPIRO: Also, many grants that used to be automatic are now subject to a peer-review process, where experts in the field evaluate who has the best grant proposal. With the stimulus money, the Justice Department distributed more than $5 billion in grants last year. In a typical year, the total was closer to $3 billion.
Tracy Henke helped award grants during the Bush administration, and she says being able to track the flow of dollars also provides a guide to an administration's priorities.
Ms. TRACY HENKE: You can see that not just the administration but also Congress has increased funding for the COPS Program, which is for salary that is something that the prior administration did not make a priority.
SHAPIRO: Under the COPS Program, the federal government covers the cost of hiring more local police officers. With these new policies, organizations that were used to criticizing the Justice Department have changed their position.
Meredith Fuchs is general counsel of the National Security Archive, a government openness organization.
Mr. MEREDITH FUCHS (General Counsel, National Security Archive): I have to say that the Justice Department does seem to be out there talking about transparency and trying to encourage all of the agencies to do a better job.
SHAPIRO: But these changes are not all attributable to new leadership. Jake Wiens of the Project on Government Oversight says things started to change late in the Bush administration when reporters and lawmakers began to focus on Justice grants.
Mr. WIENS: They did started then post-list. I think the congressional spotlight certainly played a role on this as well.
SHAPIRO: The Obama administration's point person for Justice Department grants is Laurie Robinson. Her title is assistant to attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs. Robinson ran the office in the Clinton administration and she did not plan to come back. But she told Attorney General Eric Holder twisted her arm. I recently sat down with Robinson in her office and I asked if you really wanted to funnel money to your favorite group, do you have the ability to just kind of make that happen?
Ms. LAURIE ROBINSON (Assistant to the Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs): Do I've the ability by law? Yes, I do. Would I do that? No, I would not.
SHAPIRO: If you chose to do it, would there be a way for somebody like me to see that you had done that.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, because we'd have it posted on our Web site.
SHAPIRO: So, what's your favorite charity? And now they apply for a Justice Department grant.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I guess, we could go check that out, couldn't we?
SHAPIRO: That raises another question which is I can see where the money has gone. Can I see, for example, whether those organizations were highly rated within peer-review process?
Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, we don't make the peer review ratings public. And one of the reasons is - I used to teach - it would be like posting all of the grades of all of the students. You know, these were all professionals in their field. Then it might be - in fact, it would be, as somebody who used to write grants, pretty embarrassing for people. Oh gosh, you know, hey, Joe you have got a pretty lousy grant application.
SHAPIRO: That makes sense. But at the same time, if somebody undeserving then is getting government money through favoritism or some other avenue, the transparency seems to stop short of somebody on the outside being able to see that this person receiving the grant money actually was not highly rated within the peer-review process.
Ms. ROBINSON: We've gone back and forth on that, but I think there are limits to how open one can be about this without having some pretty unfavorable results for individuals.
SHAPIRO: I've heard it said that you can tell the priorities of an administration by looking at where the money goes. So, if I were to look at where the grant money is going, what priorities what I see reflected in those grant awards?
Ms. ROBINSON: There are some things we definitely emphasizing in this administration. I'll give you a couple of examples. One is prisoner reentry. Now, it's not that the Bush administration was uninterested in that, but in the 2010 budget that was just signed by the president, we're going to be seeing a $100 million in grants through this agency going to try to further the reintegration of prisoners.
SHAPIRO: And that's a jump.
Ms. ROBINSON: It's a jump from $28 million this past year, $10 million of that will be going for research, which is another priority. We're really putting a big emphasis on science in this administration. You've heard the president talk about that and signs and looking at evaluation of programs is a big focus here.
SHAPIRO: What have you told to people who are below you in the hierarchy to ensure that your ethos of just because I can award a million dollars to my charity doesn't mean that it's ethical for me to do so, to be sure that, that ethos pervades all the way down to the ranks? What have you told people?
Ms. ROBINSON: I've really laid down the law about the importance of competing grants so that we ensure that people who are interested in applying for grants from the Department of Justice all have an equal chance.
SHAPIRO: Are there people who have been used to getting a grant automatically for years and years who are upset to hear this?
Ms. ROBINSON: I've had some people come in who are very unhappy they're not getting kind of grants as usual, yes.
SHAPIRO: And what do you say to them?
Ms. ROBINSON: It's a new era.
SHAPIRO: I wish people could see that look you just gave on the radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROBINSON: I'll try to convey it.
SHAPIRO: That's Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs. She oversees billions of dollars in grant award at the Department of Justice.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.