- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007


A federal investigator checking for conflict of interest and mismanagement in a $1 billion-a-year Education Department reading program said yesterday he has made criminal referrals to the Justice Department.

John Higgins, the Education Department’s inspector general, refused to specify for reporters what he has asked prosecutors to look at, but investigators have been highly critical of the department’s management of the Reading First program.

Criminal referrals are made by investigators when they encounter evidence of possible federal crimes, which only the Justice Department has authority to prosecute.

Reading First, created by President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act, offers intensive reading help for low-income children in the early grades. But investigators say that federal officials intervened to influence state and local decisions about which programs to use, a potential violation of the law. Some of the people who were influencing those decisions had a financial interest in the programs that were being pushed, officials said.

“I think we’re very close to a criminal enterprise here,” House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, said at an investigative hearing yesterday. “Have you made any criminal referrals, Mr. Higgins?”

“We have made referrals to the Department of Justice,” Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. Miller said his committee may also make criminal referrals. “I think when we put the evidence together we may join you in those criminal referrals,” Mr. Miller told Mr. Higgins.

But Reading First’s former director told lawmakers yesterday he did nothing wrong, despite investigators’ findings that the Education Department skirted the law and ethical standards.

In scathing exchanges with Mr. Miller, former Reading First program director Chris Doherty defended his and his colleagues’ work implementing the program.

Despite several attempts by Mr. Miller to elicit admissions of wrongdoing, Mr. Doherty refused, offering explanations for several of the complaints brought by the Education Department’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.

An inspector general report late last year stated that the reading program was beset by conflicts of interest and mismanagement. It found that people who had clear conflicts of interest because of their industry connections were able to serve as grant reviewers.

The inspector general stated that the review panels were stacked with people who shared Mr. Doherty’s views and that Mr. Doherty repeatedly used his influence to push states toward programs he favored.

“Our work showed that the department did not comply with the Reading First statute regarding the composition of the application review panel and criteria for acceptable programs,” Mr. Higgins said. “Further, the department’s actions created an appearance that it may have violated statutory provisions that prohibit it from influencing the curriculum of schools.”

Hours before the hearing began, the Education Department released statistics showing Reading First schools saw improvement in reading fluency and comprehension for first and third graders between 2004 and 2006.

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