Legal program for poor starts cutting back

/ Source: The Associated Press

The $13 per person “high tea” service and $12 bagel breaks will be gone from the January directors meeting of the government’s legal aid program for the poor. And the meeting will be held at the headquarters conference room rather than the upscale hotel used in the past.

After severe criticism from Congress, stinging reports from a financial watchdog and several articles by The Associated Press, the Legal Services Corp. has decided to temper the expensive tastes of its top officials while poor clients are turned away for lack of program funds.

Internal memos, provided to the AP voluntarily by a Legal Services official, made clear there would be no more $70 lunches and $14 “Death By Chocolate” desserts at board meetings.

Only in special circumstances would there be a repeat of hotel costs that shot through the government’s room rate ceiling, limousine services and first-class air travel.

The AP documented in August and September how the program’s executives spent freely while the corporation’s own study showed many poor Americans — in need of legal help — were being turned away at local clinics funded by the corporation.

Group came under fire for extravagance
Legal Services is financed with tax dollars but given special status as an independent, nonprofit corporation, meaning it did not have to follow government-wide expense guidelines.

After the outcry over its spending, the program decided to rein itself in by voluntarily imposing the same expense limits that apply to federal workers.

Three members of Congress expressed outrage at the extravagance: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.

“It looks like the Legal Services Corporation learned its lesson,” Grassley said in a statement. “I hope $14 cookies and limo rides around town are a thing of the past.”

Board chairman Frank Strickland, an Atlanta attorney, said in a letter to the lawmakers that the corporation board and top management have embraced the changes.

LSC’s chief administrative officer Charles Jeffress wrote in one memo, “During board meetings, only beverages will be provided ... no food will be provided for snack breaks.”

“Reasonably priced restaurants will be selected for board dinners,” and guests of board members will be expected to pay, he explained.

Corporation inspector general Kirt West, the agency’s internal watchdog, reported that at the January 2006 board of directors meeting in Washington, snack breaks cost as much as $27 per person.

The board also has ended a policy that allowed its members who dined together at meetings — rather than alone — to double their meal allowances. That policy has been dropped.

Limo rides add up
The corporation board usually has four meetings a year, including one in Washington each January. The inspector general has concluded that holding the meeting in the corporation’s own conference room could save thousands of dollars, compared to the nearby hotel used previously.

Jeffress said use of limousine services will be curtailed. “It’s not going to be a common occurrence,” he said.

LSC President Helaine Barnett, board chairman Strickland and another board member have used limousine services.

Strickland last April used a car and driver to take him and Barnett to meetings on Capitol Hill with lawmakers — about a 15-minute ride from headquarters.

The car and driver, which cost $423, also took them to Arlington National Cemetery for a funeral and to a separate memorial service, also in Arlington — all short rides and accessible by taxi.

Barnett, the corporation president, used a hired car and driver to attend a funeral service for a former board member in Harrisburg, Pa., about a two-hour drive. The cost: $400.

First-class travel necessary?
In a memo on travel policy, Jeffress wrote that first-class travel must follow restrictive government rules.

The government allows first-class tickets under circumstances that include a lack of available coach seats; accommodations for disabilities; security needs; meeting urgent timetables; and flights outside the country that exceed 14 hours.

Barnett flew first class to a conference in Ireland, at a cost the inspector general called unnecessary and excessive.

Jeffress, in another memo, said the corporation adopted government hotel rate guidelines, which allow waivers only under limited circumstances, including escalated rates due to special events or natural disasters.