Questions Surround Govt Funded Abstinence Program

An organization that promotes sexual abstinence for teens received a federal grant of over a million dollars, twice what it had requested, despite the skepticism Department of Justice staffers had about the group and the fact that it refused to participate in a congressionally mandated study.

So why did the Best Friends Foundation receive the grant from the Justice Department's juvenile justice office even though dozens of competing organizations were rated higher by the office's own reviewers? Current and former staffers say it was because of Best Friends' powerful president and founder, Elayne Bennett.

Not only is Bennett the wife of Bill Bennett, a former Reagan and Bush administration official and conservative political commentator, but she is also personally close to the chief administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), J. Robert Flores.

DOJ staffers were deeply skeptical when Best Friends applied for a grant of around a half-million dollars last summer. For one thing, the organization had backed out of a congressionally mandated study to examine whether or not abstinence programs are effective.

Then there were the DOJ staffers own internal reviews, which placed Best Friends behind dozens of other competing organizations. Out of 104 grants in their category, Best Friends ranked 53rd.

But those other organizations didn't have Elayne Bennett. Bennett, say current and former DOJ staffers in the OJJDP, often spoke on the phone with Flores and had access to him and his aides that other juvenile organizations ordinarily wouldn't have.

And then there were the parties. When Best Friends held their pricey society fundraisers, Flores was often in attendance, as were some of his top aides, albeit with permission from the DOJ ethics officers, according to OJJDP staffers.

Former OJJDP staffer Scott Peterson, who left the office in disgust over Flores' handling of the grant process, told that the parties didn't have much to do with assessing whether or not the group deserved government funding.

While still at the DOJ, Peterson had recommended that funds be withheld related to an earlier grant awarded to Best Friends because the group had not complied with federal regulations that it report how it was spending taxpayer money. When faced with a possible cut-off of their funding, the group did belatedly comply and provided the information.

And then there was the matter of Best Friends having earlier backed out of a congressionally mandated study on abstinence programs even after it had agreed to participate.

In an inteview with ABC, Bennett said she believed that other federal agencies had denied Best Friends further grants because of its pulling out of the study, conducted by the Mathmatica Policy Research, Inc., of Princeton New Jersey. But Bennett said that Best Friends was justified in pulling out because the "research design changed" after her group first agreed to participate and the new requirements would have placed onerous demands on the schools Best Friends works with.

Despite backing out of the study and the comparatively poor reviews, Best Friends received a $1.1 million grant from the juvenile justice office. They had requested $550,000.

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