Congressmen Want Review of Legal Services Grants

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Two California organizations with grants from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) may have used the money improperly, said two members of Congress who want an investigation into the entire grant process.

Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to probe LSC grantees as a result of two specific legal groups that they say might have violated the rules attached to the grants.

"Legal Services Corporation was created to ensure those of limited means have access to adequate legal representation," Davis, ranking Republican on the oversight committee said in a statement.

"It was not created to become a legal arm for far-left advocacy groups that could not otherwise attract sufficient financial support to fund the legal and political services they desire," he added.

The two groups targeted in letters written by Davis and Issa are California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Inc., which received $7.2 million in federal funds in the last fiscal year and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), which got $7.9 million in federal funds.

Federal law prohibits LSC grantees from using their funds for political advocacy at the national, state or local level. The law also requires grantees to maintain records of how money is spent and provide that information to the LSC.

The LSC inspector general is probing whether CRLA used taxpayer money to do work for illegal aliens, in violation of the LSC rules, said Davis spokesman Brian McNicoll.

The IG report from September 2006 said CRLA "focuses its resources on farm worker and Latino issues while limiting services to inner-city residents and others."

Further, the IG report said the IG's office could not complete its investigation, because the CRLA did not provide investigators with requested information. The IG's office has gone to federal court and subpoenaed those records.

"They focused on Latino issues and the better treatment of aliens more than for normal legal citizens," McNicoll told Cybercast News Service. "They are there to provide services for legal needs of underprivileged American citizens."

CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla said the IG report made errors in its findings. Most of the money spent on farm workers came from a private $3 million grant over three years by the California Endowment Agricultural Work Initiative, not from the LSC, he said.

"About 40 percent of the money we get is not from the federal government," Padilla told Cybercast News Service, and thus is not restricted, he said. "The federal government can't pay for all the unmet needs."

Further, Padilla said the organization took every step to ensure migrant workers were documented. In Padilla's view, there is no shortage of oversight regarding federal legal aid dollars. He said the CRLA has given the government a full accounting of its expenses.

"We've been the subject of three major investigations since 2000," he said. "We've been turned inside out and spent significant amounts of resources to show the government what we do. I fully understand the federal dollar must be used within the law."

Taxi cab companies in Los Angeles filed an administrative complaint against the LAFLA, saying the group helped organize and advocate on behalf of the union L.A. Taxi Workers Alliance.

The complaint says "representation before legislative bodies, direct lobbying activity, grassroots lobbying, participation in rulemaking, public demonstrations, advocacy training and certain organizing activities, are in blatant violation of federal restrictions upon recipients of LSC funds."

A spokesman for the LAFLA could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Davis and Issa signed letters that were sent to Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asking for a congressional investigation into the matter, as well as to LSC Chairman Frank Strickland and LSC Inspector General Ronald Merryman, inquiring if the agency has the resources to thoroughly investigate the matters.

"Without documents that these grantees are spending taxpayer dollars in accordance with federal mandates, there is little assurance that taxpayer dollars are in fact serving in need of legal assistance in accordance with statutory requirements," the letter to Strickland said.

LSC spokeswoman Barbara Moldauer said both matters are being looked at but would not comment about whether the agency had the resources to do a thorough probe.

"Our office of enforcement and compliance has opened a review," Moldauer told Cybercast News Service. "The investigations are in progress. We take any breach of rules seriously."

The letter to Waxman, who has held numerous investigative hearings this year, said, "Mr. Chairman, you have been a strong advocate for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in federal contracting. We respectfully request that the committee hold public hearings to investigate the evidence of misuse of federal funds."

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