June 24, 2008— -- A former top official in the White House's faith-based office was awarded a lucrative Department of Justice grant under pressure from two senior Bush administration appointees, according to current and former DOJ staff members and a review of internal DOJ documents and emails.
The $1.2 million grant was jointly awarded to a consulting firm run by Lisa Trevino Cummins who previously headed Hispanic outreach efforts for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and a California evangelical group, Victory Outreach.
The grant was awarded over the strong objections of career DOJ staff who did not believe that Victory Outreach was qualified for the grant and that too great an amount of the funds was going to Cummins' consulting company instead of being spent on services for children.
Cummins' company, Urban Strategies LLC, was slated to get one third of the money for helping the self-described "evangelizing" Victory Outreach use the rest of the funds.
On its website, Victory Outreach describes itself as a "church-oriented Christian ministry called to the task of evangelizing and disciplining the hurting people of the world, with the message of hope and plan of Jesus Christ."
The grant is now central to a Justice Department probe into alleged irregular contracting practices within its own ranks, according to a federal law enforcement official close to the investigation.
The money was awarded by J. Robert Flores, the Administrator of the DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) who is under investigation by the DOJ's Inspector General after current and former employees said he awarded grants to programs with the right political and ideological connections. OJJDP grants are intended to address juvenile delinquency prevention and/or the juvenile justice system.
Cummins' application for the grant should have immediately "raised red flags," according to a senior Justice Department official. The official said that most of the grant money should be going to services, but that "in this case, you have a third of the money up front going to a consulting company," the official said.
Furthermore, Cummins' said in the application that she planned to have one of her senior employees oversee Victory Outreach's use of the federal funds, even though that employee, Kelly Cowles, had mismanaged funds according to Ohio state investigators.
The proposal said that Cowles was qualified because as president of her own consulting company she had designed and implemented "a two-year statewide $22 million" faith-based initiative for the Ohio Governor's Office.
Ohio's governor terminated that contract for mismanagement in March 2007.
An investigation by the Ohio Inspector General in September 2007 questioned more than $125,000 in payments to Cowles' firm, concluding that "there was no documentation of what work was performed, services provided, or actual days worked." Cowles' company filed for bankruptcy protection in June of that year. Cowles declined to comment to ABC News for this story.
Flores awarded the $1.2 million OJJDP grant around that same time despite the findings of the Ohio State Inspector General and the objections of career Justice Department grant reviewers.
The reviewers concluded that Cummins' proposal was poorly crafted and labeled it as "not recommended" for funding. They questioned whether the Victory Outreach had either "the capacity" or "sufficient knowledge" to "undertake a project of this magnitude," according to a DOJ memo.
In the end, Victory Outreach rejected the grant because the group did not believe it was qualified to carry it out.
"Our board decided it was way too big a grant to handle," said Pastor Tony Garcia, Vice President of Special Services for Victory Outreach.
Garcia said that Victory Outreach became involved with Urban Strategies after other faith-based and evangelical organizations said that the consulting firm had been successful in obtaining federal grants that they would not otherwise have won. "They were highly effective in their work for other ministries," he said.
The Victory Outreach grant is one of several awarded by Flores that have come under scrutiny.
Six current and former DOJ officials told ABC News that Flores often set aside their recommendations and federal rules and regulations to award such grants to further Bush administration policies such as supporting faith-based organizations and sexual abstinence, and to reward political allies of the administration.
In the case of the Victory Outreach grant, Steven McFarland, the director of the Justice Department's Task Force for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was involved with Cummins' firm being considered for federal grants, internal DOJ emails show.
On March 16, 2007, McFarland emailed Flores' Chief of Staff, Michele DeKonty, to encourage her to meet with Cummins, saying that he had just had a meeting with Cummins that morning. In the email he "recommended that [Cummins] contact [DeKonty] regarding Victory Outreach, a faith-based ministry with 40 years of work among gang members." McFarland also pointed out that Cummins was formerly with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, adding "I know you will find her a great asset to [your] work."
An OJJDP official said that McFarland often encouraged the department to fund faith-based programs. "McFarland has his fingers in a lot of what gets funded. The program officers see him as the voice of the White House as communicated from Main Justice," the DOJ employee told ABC News.
Erik Ablin, a DOJ spokesman said on behalf of McFarland that "the Justice Department's Task Force for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives provides assistance to faith - and community-based organizations in identifying funding opportunities within the Federal government for which they are eligible to apply. The Task Force does not make the decisions about which groups are funded," he said.
Cummins told ABC News she did not recall meeting McFarland at all during the time she was attempting to obtain the OJJDP grant, and was unaware that McFarland had played any role in assisting her to obtain it.
At a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform probing Flores' grant awarding policies, Flores asserted that he had broad discretion to overrule his career staff's recommendations as to which grants should be funded: "While some may disagree with my decisions they were made in accordance with the law, within department rules, and in good faith to address the needs of our children."