June 25, 2008 -- A Department of Justice official was fired yesterday after refusing to testify at a Congressional hearing regarding whether or not her office awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants based on political favoritism and personal connections.
Michele DeKonty, Chief of Staff for the DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator, cited the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and declined to appear at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing last week.
DeKonty's departure also comes on the heels of a Justice Department probe into alleged irregular contracting practices within its own ranks according to a federal law enforcement official close to the investigation.
Questions about the agency's awarding of grants were raised earlier this month by ABC News on Nightline. (click here to watch the report)
OJJDP staff members were notified of DeKonty's departure this morning in an email from the office's administrator, J. Robert Flores, who is also under investigation by the DOJ's Inspector General. That investigation probes Flores' hiring of a Honduran Colonel as a contractor on faith-based issues and his alleged golfing during conferences on taxpayer-funded business trips, according to a staff member who was contacted by the OIG.
In the email Flores said, "Over the past 2 years I have had the benefit of working with a talented and professional Chief of Staff in Michele DeKonty. Yesterday, ended her tenure with our Office."
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told Flores at the hearing last week: "The question before this committee is whether the grant solicitation was a rigged game and whether it has best served children around the country. Mr. Flores, it seems you're the only person at the Department of Justice who thinks your process was fair, transparent and served the interest of taxpayers."
Flores defended himself at the hearing, asserting 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," he said.
A spokesman for DOJ said the Department had "no comment on the matter."
DeKonty's attorney, David Laufman could not be immediately reached for comment on this story. 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.