June 19, 2008 -- Congressional investigators revealed today that a top Department of Justice official gave $500,000 to the World Golf Foundation to fight juvenile crime after traveling to the group's Florida golf course headquarters and played a free round of golf with foundation officials.
The official, J. Robert Flores, is the administrator of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which awards more than $100 million a year in federal grants.
The golf program, called First Tee, received the money from the Department of Justice even though it was ranked by staff as 47th out of 104, and was deemed "not recommended" by the staff.
Its honorary chairman is former President George Bush.
Flores admitted in testimony today before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), that he did not "initially" pay for the round of golf in February 2006 at the Slammer and Squire golf course in St. Augustine, Florida.
A receipt produced to Congressional investigators by the World Golf Foundation shows he reimbursed the group for the $159 greens fees only yesterday, just 24 hours before his scheduled Congressional testimony.
"This seems to be a violation of the federal ethics law," said Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
"The foundation paid for your greens fees and then the next year you disregard the recommendations of your professional staff and award the foundation a half-million dollar federal grant. You have tainted the process," the Congressman said.
Flores denied giving the golf foundation special treatment.
"I understand even when you are trying to make the best decision possible, the appearance does not seem in line with that," Flores told the committee in his testimony.
Congressional investigators reported that Flores and his chief of staff, Michelle DeKonty, met with a World Golf Foundation official in June 2007 and directed Justice Department officials to assist the group in submitting its grant application.
Congressman Waxman said DeKonty declined to appear before the committee today, citing the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The grant to the World Golf Foundation is one of a number being questioned by Congress following the ABC News reports, and an earlier report in the trade publication Youth Today.
The Justice Department's Inspector General has opened an investigation into Flores' golf trip, according to current employees who say they have been contacted by the IG's office.
Flores says he decided to give the money to the First Tee golf program because it "engages kids and teaches them life skills."
Of the 104 programs that were ranked by Flores' staff, none of the top five was given grants.
Committee Chairman Waxman told Flores his own staff had complained about his decisions. "It seems you are the only person at the Department of Justice who thought this process was fair, transparent and served the interests of taxpayers."