- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006


The federal program that provides legal help to poor Americans turns away half its applicants because of a lack of resources. But that hasn’t stopped its executives from lavishing expensive meals, chauffeur-driven cars and trips abroad on themselves.

Agency documents obtained by the Associated Press detail the luxuries that executives of the Legal Services Corp. (LSC) have given themselves with federal money — from $14 “death by chocolate” desserts to $400 chauffeured rides to locations within cab distance of their offices.

The government-funded corporation also has a spacious headquarters in Georgetown — with views of the Potomac River — and pays a significantly higher rent than other tenants in the building do.

The program’s clients were upset when told of the spending.

“I don’t think that’s right,” said Richard Taylor as he walked from an austere LSC office in Washington, his head covered with a towel to shield against the searing heat on a recent summer day.

“They’re depriving some others that really need it, and that’s not good. … It’s supposed to be about the people.”

The nonprofit corporation was created by Congress to provide legal help in civil matters to low-income Americans. It funds neighborhood legal clinics across the country.

Three congressional committees have questioned the executive spending, as has the corporation’s internal watchdog. The chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee is threatening to withhold money if the corporation doesn’t trim its extravagance.

“It’s waste and abuse,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, citing the board’s doubling of the meal money as an example. “At 200 percent, it seems to me what we would call in Iowa ‘living high off the hog.’”

LSC officials defend their program, saying administrative expenses are kept separate from money distributed to the local, independently run legal outlets.

LSC spokesman Tom Polgar said President Helaine Barnett and board Chairman Frank Strickland “are aware they are using taxpayer funds and try to operate in a manner that is frugal and appropriate.”

Mrs. Barnett is a former legal-services lawyer. Mr. Strickland is an Atlanta lawyer.

Mrs. Barnett declined to be interviewed. Mr. Strickland did not return several phone messages seeking comment.

LSC Inspector General Kirt West has questioned whether the corporation’s headquarters has more space than it needs and whether it pays too much for rent.

The scrutiny of the spending comes as the corporation says it doesn’t have enough resources to meet many clients’ needs.

An internal study in October found that for every client who receives service, one applicant is turned away for lack of resources. Because that study counted only those who contacted the program for assistance, the corporation said it likely underestimated the unmet need.

Nine recent state studies found that fewer than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans were being met, LSC said.

Neighborhood Legal Services, an LSC program that serves the poor in the District, helps clients stave off homelessness, fight unscrupulous landlords, file for divorce or receive help with a host of other legal problems.

The lobby of the inner-city office looks like a doctor’s waiting room that has used the same hard chairs and magazine stand for decades. The carpet is worn and stained. Some offices are barely big enough for a desk.

Unlike LSC headquarters’ well-stocked library, filled with criminal code books and Supreme Court opinions, the local program’s library is mostly bare. The conference table doubles as a staff lunchroom.

Client Marie Parran wants money supporting the LSC headquarters to go to the field.

“There’s so many poor people in the Washington, D.C., area who need the help and can’t afford a lawyer. I think that’s money that should be going to the poor that live in D.C,” she said.

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