- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An audit of the government’s legal aid program for the poor concluded Monday that the purchase of more than $188,000 worth of imported Italian stone to decorate one of the program’s office buildings in Texas was unnecessary and excessive, and recommended that taxpayers not bear the costs.

The inspector general of the Legal Services Corp.(LSC) said the stone, which adorns three full stories of a newly remodeled Fort Worth office building, “appears only to be decorative in nature” and does not constitute a “reasonable and necessary” expense fulfilling the federal program’s mission of providing free legal assistance to impoverished Americans.

“Making large expenditures for decorative items may result in fewer funds to provide legal services to clients,” the inspector general wrote, asking the LSC management to take appropriate action to ensure that Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas not use tax dollars to pay for the costs as part of its mortgage payments on the new building.

Officials at Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas defended their decision, but Stephen Barr, a spokesman for the LSC headquarters in Washington, said the program was taking the inspector generals recommendations seriously.

Click here to download a PDF of the audit.

“We will move as quickly as we can,” he told The Washington Times on Monday. “The matter has been referred to our Office of Compliance and Enforcement, and they are going to make this a priority.”

The audit emerged just two weeks after The Times first highlighted the purchase in an investigative project that examined LSC’s spending practices in the midst of a recession.

The federally funded legal aid program has been dogged for years with questions about how it spends its money, which also has included providing its executives with limousine transportation from its Georgetown headquarters to Capitol Hill, $14 Death by Chocolate pastries and first-class airfare.

The decorative stone, purchased by Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas as part of an office complex it is refurbishing, quickly became a symbol of what Congress has regarded as excessive government spending, especially while the Obama administration is seeking additional money for the LSC program to help recession-stricken Americans in need of legal aid.

The inspector general quoted officials involved with the Texas program as defending the purchase, saying the high-end imported stone was selected for its beautiful finish and installed as a decorative flourish. Those involved in the construction also say the city’s downtown design standards required fancy planning and materials.

“Had we merely designed an ordinary brown box, I would dare say we would not have been allowed to move forward,” Benjamin Smith, an architect for Multatech, the project manager for the construction, told auditors.

The remodeled law office was designed to mimic the look and feel of a church, which the building once had been.

“We decided that the design needed a material that served as not only an accent but a figurative beacon and portal to the present as well as a literal portal into the building,” Mr. Smith told the auditors. “The white stone wall was the key contemporary component that we decided to use.”

Planners considered using local stone but decided “many of the local selections either looked too tan or had a yellowish cast,” Mr. Smith said.

The LSC inspector general said the Italian stone decoration was an unacceptable expenditure and recommended that LSC officials not only take action to recoup the $188,000 paid for it, but also to try to get back an additional $41,000 spent on contractors for which the Fort Worth program could not provide proper documentation.

“The cost of construction for the new building has been paid for with funds from two sources, funds on hand and proceeds from a loan with a financial institution that the grantee plans to repay in large part with LSC funds,” the audit said. “Since some, if not most, of the funds used to purchase the building and pay off the loan were or will be LSC funds, the OIG is questioning the entire amount of $188,522 spent on the stone and will refer this issue to LSC management for action.”

LSC is a nonprofit corporation funded by Congress with tax dollars. It distributes grants to legal aid groups nationwide that, in turn, help the poor with civil cases ranging from domestic abuse and child custody to home foreclosures and disability benefits. It received $390 million in federal funds for 2009.

Officials at the Fort Worth office are unhappy with the audit’s recommendations, saying they trusted the architectural specialists to design the building and have no regrets about doing so “considering the challenges faced and the complexities of local codes and construction requirements.”

“Reliance had to be placed on the experts,” Errol A. Summerlin, chief executive officer for Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, wrote in a letter to investigators that protest the audit’s findings, saying that taking the experts’ recommendations were what a prudent person would reasonably have done.

“Thus, the question is one of pluralism, i.e. whether, during the course of three years of decision making, another group of prudent individuals, with the advice and counsel of experts in the field, would have collectively made the same decisions given the totality of the circumstances presented in an ever evolving project such as this. We are confident they would have, and believe the conclusion made by the Inspector General to question the reasonableness of the cost lacks foundation and is unwarranted.”

• Amanda Carpenter can be reached at acarpenter@washingtontimes.com.

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