- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheriffs in Colorado used nearly half the money the federal government gave them to track violent offenders on impermissible expenses like promotional T-shirts and restaurant dinners with their spouses, according to the latest investigation to expose weak oversight of Justice Department grants.

This tale of law enforcement money gone wrong began when Justice awarded $1.5 million between 2008 and 2011 to the nonprofit County Sheriffs of Colorado Inc. to be used to implement and maintain an automated system that tracks violent offenders and notifies victims of changes in prisoner status, like being released early on parole.

But auditors for the department’s inspector general found $704,886 in unallowable costs from the grants, including $1,472 for unapproved meals and promotional merchandise. The sheriff’s group said it didn’t intend to run afoul of spending requirements, but it got little guidance on how to spend the money and little help from Justice when it had questions.

The sheriff’s grant misspending may seem like a small drop in the bucket of federal waste, but it continues a pattern of poor spending oversight that has plagued the Justice Department for years.

Last year The Washington Times reported the Justice Department wasted as much as $100 million over the past five years on mismanaged grants. The problems included the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America not being able to account for the nearly $20 million it received from Justice, which led to a freeze on the organization getting Justice funds.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees told The Washington Times they believe the Colorado misspending shows the agency has yet to create the proper monitoring for the tax dollars it hands out.

“Blowing taxpayer money on dinner and T-shirts is certainly not a prudent use of tax dollars,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said in an interview Thursday.

Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican: “With our national debt over $18 trillion, no one can deny that our government has a spending problem. All of our federal agencies, including the Justice Department, must be looking for ways to tighten their belts by eliminating inefficient and duplicative spending from their bottom lines.”

“The House Judiciary Committee is always looking for ways the Justice Department can reduce waste and duplicative programs while maintaining an efficient process for providing needed support to law enforcement agencies around the country,” Mr. Goodlatte added.

For creating an environment that continues to squander valuable tax dollars for law enforcement, the Justice Department wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction given by The Times that highlights examples of wasteful spending.

Auditors attributed most of the questionable expenses in Colorado to improper bookkeeping. Officials at the County Sheriffs of Colorado Inc. said that they were not given any direction from the Justice Department on the reporting process and said that reaching out to the department for guidance was difficult.

“We acknowledge here at CSOC that there were a lot of errors we made during the reporting of these two grants and we have learned a lot from this audit,” Chris Johnson, the executive director of CSOC, wrote in a response letter published in the audit. “At least we were consistent in our reporting for both grants as I just followed in my reporting what the Project Manager did for the first grant, not knowing that some of the procedures he had followed were inaccurate.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Johnson was promoted to executive director after the first of the two Justice Department grants totaling $1.5 million was awarded. Justice gave CSOC nearly $500,000 in 2008 and another $1 million in 2011.

“We were given very little direction on the reporting process and reaching out to get the help we needed was difficult. The online manual information was also very confusing, therefore making some of our reporting inaccurate,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “At no point with either of these grants was there any misuse of funds, as was established in the audit from your office.”

Critics say the cycle of waste stems from a policy pattern in Washington, where Congress gives the Justice Department (and other agencies) money to use as grants to their constituents, which the agency then hands out but leaves the grantees to their own devices.

“There’s no way that DOJ can monitor all those grants that go out,” said David Muhlhausen, research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Congress wants it that way, because Congress wants to give out the money. Once the money goes out to constituents, in their eyes it’s a success. Achieving results is not an issue.”

In 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — also known as the Obama stimulus bill — the Justice Department received $4 billion in federal funding earmarked specifically for grants.

Two years later, a Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) report said Justice had misspent $277 million on its COPS grant program, which is awarded to different law enforcement agencies nationally. According to the report, the Justice Department has only recouped $6 million of the $277 million.

Last year, in a memorandum to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the DOJ’s inspector general’s office said that protecting taxpayer funds from mismanagement and misuse was a top concern within the agency, reporting that, in FY 2014, auditors identified about $23.7 million in questioned costs and more than $1.2 million in taxpayer funds that could be put to better use.

“I think it’s an ongoing problem after [the auditor] finds that money gets spent, it’s sort of like a paperwork exercise with the grant receiving institution. They always work on fixing the problem, not preventing it,” Mr. Muhlhausen said.

Mr. Grassley said he has been working to push reforms in Justice Department oversight in his Senate committee, but “getting some changes in law has been like pulling teeth.”

“Let’s just say the last four years I’ve been ranking member, and I’ve been on the committee for 34 years. Particularly in the last six years, I haven’t seen the willingness of the Democratic Senate to do vigorous oversight of federal agencies,” Mr. Grassley said, adding that he is planning to push new reforms during his chairmanship that would shift the administrative setup for Justice’s grant programs.

“We ought to be able to organize it so that there’s less administrative overhead.”

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