DOJ Official Breached Ethics Rules Playing Golf

A senior Bush-appointed Justice Department official breached ethics rules by accepting a free round of golf from a grant applicant, awarded tens of millions of dollars in grant money to low-ranking programs, and circumvented federal regulations to hire a consultant to work on faith-based issues, according to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.

The OIG audit for fiscal year 2007 and investigative report slammed J. Robert Flores, the official who oversaw the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), and rekindled outrage from Democrats in Congress.

"The Inspector General's findings that the Director of [OJJDP] in the past administration engaged in abuses, ethical lapses and cronyism, and favored those with personal and political ties over those with the strongest merits for jobs and contracts, is consistent with what we have seen in so many parts of the Department of Justice under the past administration," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Youth advocates chimed in calling OJJDP's grant giving practices totally corrupt: "What took place was an utter disregard for the extraordinary adults and hundreds and hundreds of youth serving agencies who applied for these federal grants to improve the lives of these abused and molested children and youth who were victimized," said Scott Peterson, a former OJJDP staffer.

The OIG's report comes almost one year after ABC News Nightline raised questions about Flores' grant-giving methods last June. He awarded hundreds of thousands and in one case over $1 million to programs that ranked towards the bottom of the applicant pool -- which often aligned with his personal interests and ideological convictions according to current and former DOJ staffers-- leaving many of the top ranked grant seeking programs with nothing.

The World Golf Foundation's "First Tee" program was awarded $500,000 in 2007, despite its ranking of 47th out of 104 applicants by OJJDP staffers who rated the programs' merit based on research and track records for effectively helping troubled teens.

OIG Report Says Flores Violated Federal Ethics Rules

"There's no research that supports this," Peterson told Nightline. "It's a lot of taxpayer money that's supposed to go for some of our most vulnerable children," Peterson said, adding that he believes Flores gave the grant to World Golf because he likes to play the game.

"Flores would golf during the day while on official travel around the country on tax payer funds," said Peterson, who traveled with Flores on several occasions.

The OIG report revealed that Flores had violated federal ethics rules by accepting a $157 round of golf from World Golf and that the foundation should have been prohibited from receiving the grant due to the gift. Flores paid the money back two years later, one day before he was called to testify at a congressional hearing probing his office's grant-giving practices.

"He never considered the round of golf a gift because it was always his intent to pay for the round of golf with personal funds," said his lawyer, Elliot Berke, on Thursday. Berke said Flores attempted to pay for the round at the time he played but the foundation was unable to accept payment.

Flores told ABC News in a telephone interview before the Nightline report that First Tee is a sound program: "I don't know why people insist on denigrating it."

ABC News reported that another program that was awarded $1.1 million, twice the amount it asked for, promotes abstinence and was ranked 53rd on a list of 104 applicants.

Washington, D.C.-based Best Friends is run by Elayne Bennett, the wife of Bill Bennett, a former Republican cabinet member and now political commentator.

"We're really about positive friendships," she told Nightline at a 2008 charity gala that included many of Washington's GOP elite. "A good, solid friendship is a beautiful thing," she said.

ABC News reported that many top-rated programs were denied federal grants.

A program to help troubled teens in San Diego, Vista, was ranked number two by the staff out of 202 applicants in its category of prevention and intervention but was turned down for a grant to help deal with inner city teen violence in San Diego.

Top Spot But Denied Federal Money

A program designed to train adult guards to deal with teens in custody was denied federal money even though it was ranked by number two out of 104 in its category.

"What Flores did in this situation is he just stomped on the heads of kids who are very much at risk and in trouble in this country," Earl Dunlap, who runs the guard training program for the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, told Nightline.

"He determined what the rules were gonna be and who was gonna play and who was gonna be welcome in his club. And everybody else could take a hike," said Dunlap of Flores.

In a telephone interview with ABC News before the Nightline report, Flores defended his decisions as in the best overall interest of dealing with teen crime.

He said he was never bound by his staff's recommendations and that he made decisions based "on the overall" need in the country.

Berke said Thursday that his client's decisions on the 2007 discretionary awards "were made in accordance with the law, within DOJ rules, and in good faith to address the needs of children who find themselves in the juvenile justice system or at risk of contact with it." 

The OIG also found that Flores, by hiring an ex-Colonel Honduran army who at one point had run for president of Honduras, had violated federal acquisition regulations by failing to go through the competitive hiring process required by federal civil servants.

ABC News reported last June that Hector Rene Fonseca, whose Honduran military career spanned three decades, was contracted to work on faith-based and gang issues, according to DOJ staff members. The staffer familiar with Fonseca's contract said Flores invented the job and that no one in the office knew that job was needed until the HR Department was told to hire Fonseca.

The Inspector General's office said Fonseca was paid about $281,000 over a 2 ½-year period, and failed to adequately document the services that he provided pursuant to contract.

ABC News reported that Fonseca attended Church with Flores, according to DOJ staffers, and is married to Deborah Lynne De Moss, a major GOP contributor. Fonseca himself donated $2,000 to President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004, the same year he was hired, and reportedly raised about $50,000 more on behalf of the former president, even though he could not vote in the election.

Berke said that to his client's knowledge, the hiring of Mr. Fonseca and the execution of his contract were done through proper channels consistent with federal law, regulation, and DOJ policy. "He did not consider Mr. Fonseca's contract to be a personal services contract," said Berke.

In an email obtained by ABC News, Fonseca said farewell to his colleagues in July of 2007, saying "It is my hope and prayer that the job and peace of Jesus Christ will be real to each one of you."

Fonseca could not immediately be reached for comment on this story and the OJJDP did not wish to provide comment for this story.

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Murray Waas is a Washington-based investigative reporter who primarily covers national security and law enforcement issues. He is a contributing editor to the National Journal and has also written for the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and other newspapers and magazines.

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