Nonprofit testified in Md. agency probe

Group that received anti-crime grants subpoenaed in April

August 02, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Federal prosecutors have been investigating anti-crime grants distributed by an agency overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend since at least April in a probe that has included grand jury testimony by an official of a Prince George's County nonprofit in June.

Two top officials of Safe Streets 2000 Inc., a nonprofit that received state grants for community programs in central Prince George's, said in separate interviews yesterday that FBI agents arrived at the group's Largo office with a subpoena for all of the group's records in April.

Terry Lawlah, Safe Streets' paid executive director, appeared before the grand jury and testified for "about 10 minutes," said Del. Joanne C. Benson, the group's co-founder and unpaid president.

"When the grand jury looked at our records, they saw every i was dotted and every t was crossed - no foolishness," Benson said in her first public comments since the story was reported.

Benson, a Prince George's Democrat, said Lawlah came out of the grand jury room "scratching her head" over what federal investigators were looking for. Lawlah said she did not get the impression that the organization was the target of the probe.

The three-term delegate said neither she nor her personal records were subpoenaed. Benson said she accompanied Lawlah to Baltimore to lend moral support and was not asked to testify.

"We have not heard a mumbling word since" from the prosecutors, Benson said.

Prosecutors also have subpoenaed records of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which Townsend oversees.

Although Townsend said she learned of the federal investigation "about a month ago" from the crime-control office, a spokesman for that office could not say last night when the agency received its subpoena. Nor will the agency detail which records were requested by the federal authorities. It is also unclear when the agency learned of the subpoena served in April to the Prince George's nonprofit.

Initial news reports about the investigation this week set off a round of political recriminations between Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., her leading Republican rival in the governor's race.

For the second straight day, Townsend questioned the motivations of U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio - who was backed for the job by Ehrlich - in conducting the investigation.

"It's an amazing coincidence that the U.S. attorney would take on a tiny little office and a $40,000 grant when there are so many other challenges to be involved in," Townsend said.

She also questioned Ehrlich's statement that he has not had any contact about the investigation with DiBiagio.

"I've seen him not tell the truth once," Townsend said, referring to allegations Ehrlich made regarding juvenile crime statistics. "I'll see what he's doing in this case as well."

Ehrlich said last night that he stands by his statement that he has not spoken to DiBiagio. "Does she really think the U.S. attorney and the FBI are working together to hurt her campaign? It's incredible," Ehrlich said. DiBiagio has declined to comment.

In using the $40,000 figure, Townsend was apparently referring to the approximate amount of payments to subcontractors out of a 2001 state grant of $503,000 to a partnership of Safe Streets 2000 and Los Angeles-based National Homes Trust.

The governor's crime office routed $41,950 through an unrelated nonprofit, Quiet Fire Repertory Co., to former journalist Bruce W. Branch and two other subcontractors after National Homes Trust refused to pay for work Branch and the subcontractors had done.

Officials defended the transaction as a legal "pass-through" designed to comply with federal law. Lawlah said Safe Streets officials had no knowledge of the payments and owed no money to the recipients because they were not her group's subcontractors.

Chuck Porcari, press secretary for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor would not comment on the investigation and the operations of the crime-control office. Porcari referred calls to Townsend, noting that she has been delegated authority over the office.

New details about the troubled grant emerged in copies of documents that the crime office, known as GOCCP, provided to The Sun.

In a letter to Terry Lawlah dated Aug. 3, 2001, GOCCP Deputy Director of Programs Sonya T. Proctor wrote that the National Homes Trust was "found negligent in two critical areas."

The nonprofit group's program was found to be serving only 30 youths - not the 200 it had said it would serve in its grant application, she wrote. And it had submitted invoices for $26,000 in expenses to a subsidiary of Safe Streets, Community Services Coalition (CSC) of Prince George's County, that were not properly documented.

Proctor wrote that CSC "shares in the responsibility of NHT's management of its project component" as one of the direct recipients of the grant award for the Diamonds of Opportunity project.

While critical of NHT, Proctor praised the work CSC was doing.

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