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Manufacturing a “Scandal” at the Legal Services Corporation

What to do when you have it in for a federal agency that is recognized on both sides of the aisle for providing high-quality services to Americans in need…

  • Rebekah Diller
June 24, 2007

*Cross-posted from The Huffington Post 

What to do when you have it in for a federal agency that is recognized on both sides of the aisle for providing high-quality services to Americans in need, all the while operating on a shoestring (about half of its 1981 budget in real terms)?

Manufacture a “scandal,” of course.

Those few lawmakers who just don’t like the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s provider of civil legal aid to the poor, are at it again. They’ve leaked a report that grudgingly concludes that Helaine Barnett, LSC’s president, made an unintentional mistake when responding to Congressional inquiries and tried to spin it into a story about abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Read past the headlines of this AP story and see how notwithstanding valiant attempts, LSC’s Inspector General, Kirt West, could not find any evidence that Barnett intentionally misled Congress when she answered questions about travel expenses for a trip to Ireland. At issue was a first-class flight to Ireland for a conference which Ms. Barnett believed had been obtained via a frequent flyer upgrade. The IG determined that the upgrade occurred only after a series of cancellations and rebookings that cost the agency about $1049. After learning of the added costs, the AP story says, Ms. Barnett corrected her statements to Congress and reimbursed the agency.

Barnett, a respected, career legal aid attorney and administrator, has received high marks from veteran legal aid providers for her leadership. And the IG himself found no evidence that she knowingly misled Congress in any way. So why are Barnett and LSC under fire?

Some critics simply don’t like the idea that in a country that promises equal justice for all, the federal government might make some small effort to deliver on that promise. Notwithstanding the important work that LSC does—preventing seniors from losing their homes, helping victims of domestic violence obtain protection, obtaining benefits for disabled children—most studies estimate that 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people still go unmet due to inadequate government funding.

Yet, despite this continued crisis in our courts, LSC critics such as Charles Grassley (R-IA), persist in searching for any opportunity to destabilize the agency. It’s particularly ironic to read him inveighing against Ms. Barnett’s $1000 mistake—all of which was repaid and cost the taxpayer not a penny—when just last year he himself attempted to earmark $50 million to bring a man-made rainforest to Iowa. A better use of everyone’s time —and investigative zeal—would be pry into why millions of Americans who desperately need legal help in the land of equal justice are unable to get it.