Senator Charles Grassley

Grassley Demands DOJ Respond to Fraud Allegations

Senator Charles Grassley
Sen. Charles Grassley.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley has asked the Justice Department to respond to whistleblowers’ claims that it fraudulently paid millions of dollars in grant money to states that should not have received the money because they incarcerated nonviolent juvenile offenders with adults in violation of federal law.

In a six-page letter sent Wednesday to Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, Grassley detailed the allegations that the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) had knowingly violated federal law by giving the grants to states that incarcerated runaway youth, foster children and other “vulnerable minors.”

“Most disturbingly, whistleblowers allege that OJJDP’s exercise of this policy is not limited to the correction of clerical errors or other innocent mistakes arising from states’ misunderstanding of reporting requirements,” wrote Grassley, an Iowa Republican who took over this month as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The letter, which requested a written response from Mason by Feb. 6, named Wisconsin and said the allegations also focused on four other states or territories but did not disclose which ones.

The offices of Mason and OJJDP Administrator Robert Listenbee did not immediately comment in response to a JJIE request Thursday morning.

Wednesday’s letter follows a September letter from Grassley to Listenbee in which the senator wrote:  “I have been contacted by multiple whistleblowers who allege that grants have been fraudulently obtained from [OJJDP] in the amount of at least $7 million since 2000. ...

“Alarmingly,” the September letter stated, “the whistleblowers also allege that they suffered retaliation when they attempted to raise this issue internally and were actively discouraged from investigating these alleged abuses.”

Whistleblowers’ allegations center on one of the four “core requirements” of the landmark 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The provision mandates that youths who commit nonviolent “status offenses” such as skipping school, running away from home or using alcohol may not be incarcerated but should instead receive community-based services.

In his Wednesday letter, Grassley stated, “As evidenced by the Wisconsin example, the core allegation is that OJJDP knowingly allows states to obtain [JJDPA] funds to which they are not entitled, as part of its institutional philosophy of ‘working with the states’ at all costs.”

Under the JJDPA, states or territories that fail to comply with any of the law’s core requirements are to lose 20 percent in OJJDP formula grant money the following federal fiscal year for each core requirement in which the state or territory is noncompliant.

Grassley wrote that in response to his September letter, OJJDP had said its Office of the Inspector General had begun investigating in 2008 allegations that Wisconsin provided “false information” in its annual compliance monitoring reports.

The OJJDP reply stated: “The investigation found that from 2001 to 2004, a [Wisconsin] compliance monitor submitted annual reports that he admitted were ‘made up’ so that [the state] would continue to receive ... grant funds. … OIG also found that from 2001 to 2006, [Wisconsin] submitted inaccurate reports about the number of facilities that were physically inspected.”

But other than reducing Wisconsin’s grant funding for 2007, no other actions had been taken against the state as of January 2014, according to the OIG response.

OJJDP said in October 2014 that it had placed “special conditions” on Wisconsin’s 2013 and 2014 grant funds that prevent spending of “additional grant funds,” but Grassley wrote that OJJDP did not explain what had been done to “account for the untold amounts of taxpayer dollars that Wisconsin had already obtained unlawfully since 2001.”

Beth Levine, Grassley’s press secretary, said Wednesday night that his office would have no further comment for now.

In a news release dated Wednesday, Grassley said: “These allegations that some states are receiving millions in taxpayer dollars despite failing to adequately serve at-risk minors are disturbing. Congress established important benchmarks for states applying for federal dollars to support their juvenile justice programs.

“Yet,” the senator continued, “it appears that the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has turned a blind eye to these requirements, effectively rewarding states for failing to effectively protect children within their boundaries. The Department of Justice needs to explain its justification for this apparent disregard for legal requirements and its efforts to ensure the prudential use of tax dollars.”

Grassley and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.l., are heading a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the JJDPA. Levine said Grassley intends to include in a reauthorization measure he will cosponsor stronger accountability in grant-making for the OJJDP. She declined to elaborate.

In October 2014, the nonprofit, Washington-based Government Accountability Project (GAP) announced that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel  had ordered an investigation into allegations that OJJDP had improperly continued federal funding to Wisconsin in violation of the JJDPA.

Tom Devine, GAP’s legal director and an attorney representing whistleblower Jill Semmerling, told JJIE that young offenders and foster children had been incarcerated with adult inmates in Wisconsin in violation of the JJDPA. Devine also alleged that OJJDP failed to investigate evidence that the state’s records were falsified so it would appear to be in compliance with the law.

A spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel said he could not confirm the investigation.

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Gary Gately

Gary Gately is an award-winning reporter and editor who has worked for The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and United Press International.