June 12, 2008 -- 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 ABCNews.com 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.
Flores refused to do an on-camera interview with ABC News but in a phone conversation insisted he was not influenced by the group's high level connections and said he chose the program because historically there was not a lot of funding for programs aimed at delinquent girls.
At a recent fundraiser, Elayne Bennett told ABCNews.com that her organization is all about good friendships.
"We're really about positive friendships. And a good, solid friendship is a beautiful thing," she said.
She said of the career Justice Department employees who are now speaking out about their allegations of favoritism: "They say that others are playing politics. But they are doing this because of politics. They don't like the politics of our group and others. That's where that nastiness comes from."
She added: "Inside leaking. You have to be careful of that."
Meanwhile, competing with Best Friends for a federal grant from the OJJDP was a Washington non-profit, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an advocacy group for victims of rape and sexual assault.
Among other things, RAINN runs a telephone hotline for victims of rape and sexual assault, which has put hundreds of thousands of victims together with local rape crisis centers. In the category of OJJDP grants for which both organizations applied, Best Friends ranked 51st, while RAINN came in at 14th. RAINN did not receive a grant from the OJJDP.
A spokesman for RAINN declined to comment for the story. Meanwhile, others in the juvenile justice arena continue to question why Flores would ignore the advice of his own staffers and award grants to lower-ranked organizations.
"Under Flores, his office has abandoned its core mission in favor of peripheral issues with ineffective programs," William Treanor, executive director of the American Youth Work Center, told ABCNews.com.
"The office has abdicated respect and leadership in the juvenile justice field," he said. The newspaper published by Treanor's organization, Youth Today, first reported the controversy over Flores' grant awards.
Although OJJDP administrators have some discretion under the law to award grants to whomever they want, Flores is still required to get approval for the awards from his superior.
But because of Best Friends' lower ranking, 53rd out of 104 grant applicants considered, his superiors might have overruled him, if they knew of the group's poor standing, according to Justice Department officials involved in the process.
To make sure that a grant to Best Friends was approved, officials say, Flores simply created an entirely whole new category which the organization's grant proposal would be considered.
The category, Flores wrote in a memo to then-Assistant Attorney General Regina Schofield, who oversaw the awarding of Justice Department contracts and grants was for grantees "utilizing school based outreach efforts directed at preventing high-risk activity (out-of-wedlock pregnancy)."
Flores went on to write Schofield regarding Best Friend's proposal: "This application has the highest score that met the criteria under the administrator's priority area."
What Flores left out of the memo was that Best Friends had the highest score because by manipulating the categories, Best Friends was the only organization that qualified at all in that particular category.
In its original category, some fifty organizations were given higher scores than Best Friends by Justice Department reviewers. Forty of them, despite having higher rankings than Best Friends, would receive no money at all from the government.
Some who have worked with Best Friends praise the organization and its work. Wanda Fox, the principal of a Washington D.C. public school, Brighton Elementary School, said: "None of the girls we have had in the program have gotten pregnant. They don't drop out." Best Friends, Fox says, "empowers young people to take control of their lives."
But four current and former career Justice Department officials say Flores played favorites in awarding grants to Best Friends and question why their reservations about the group were set aside.
Peterson simply says of the grant for Best Friends: "The administrator made sure the fix was in on this one."
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.