April 29, 2008— -- The Department of Justice has secretly agreed to settle conflict of interest allegations against the executive director of a group that has received $97 million in federal grants to improve the nation's family courts, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mary Mentaberry, of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), failed to disclose that her husband had received $94,000 in real estate commission for helping the organization secure new office space. Mentaberry agreed to pay $16,500 in the settlement, which has not been previously been made public, to the consternation of some Justice Department officials.
"You would expect a nationwide association of judges to follow the rules," said one official, who called the matter an embarrassment not only to the group but also to the Department of Justice, which has given so many millions of dollars to the group.
Earlier this month, the same group paid $300,000 to settle claims that it overcharged the Justice Department.
In the case involving her husband's real estate commission, the Justice Department's inspector general said Mentaberry had an obligation to inform officials of the potential conflict of interest because of the group's heavy reliance on federal money.
An attorney for Mentaberry said that neither Mentaberry nor her husband violated any laws or regulations and that her husband was first hired by the council seven years before Mentaberry was appointed executive director.
"Mr. Mentaberry helped the Council secure commercial leases at competitive rates for a period of four years. The leases were approved by three subsequent executive directors (not Ms. Mentaberry), and Mr. Mentaberry's fees were paid by the building owner. At no time did Mr. Mentaberry ever receive any funds from the Council," attorney Judith Wheat said in a statement to ABCNews.com.
"To avoid protracted and expensive litigation, and permit Ms. Mentaberry to focus her full-time attention on the Council's important work, Ms. Mentaberry entered into a nominal civil settlement with DOJ, the terms of which are subject to the Privacy Act," said Wheat.
Wheat also questioned whether DOJ officials violated the Privacy Act by possibly disclosing even the existence of the agreement between Mentaberry and the Justice Department.
In another unrelated matter, the Council separately agreed to pay $300,000 to the government earlier this month to settle claims that it overcharged the DOJ for services related to grants it had received. Unlike the settlement involving Mentaberry, that settlement was made public.
The president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges told ABCNews.com that while it did agree to pay the $300,000, the organization did not admit any liability.
"The NCJFCJ fully cooperated with the Department of Justice in the review and in the ultimate settlement of these issues.The NCJFCJ takes these allegations seriously and has reviewed its administrative practices and training policies to ensure that Department of Justice will not have such concerns again," said Judge Susan B. Carbon in a statement to ABCNews.com.
"In settling these issues, the NCJFCJ did not admit liability. However, it determined that it was in the best interests of the NCJFCJ and its long relationship with Department of Justice to settle these issues and resolve the DOJ's concerns," said Carbon.
The separate agreements by both the council and its executive director come at a time when several members of Congress have questioned whether the Bush administration appointees in the Justice Department have sidestepped federal regulations in awarding grants on the basis of political favoritism and not merit. The Department official said that he believed that there might have been an effort to keep the agreement with Mentaberry confidential so as to not attract additional attention from Congress regarding the awarding of Department grants.
Federal investigators considered the settlement agreements significant because the organization and its executive director represent the nation's judges -- in this case juvenile justice and family court judges. The sheer amount of government grants awarded to the organization made it even more imperative that the organization comply with federal conflict of interest and contracting rules, they said.
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.