Vague U.S. rules could hamper probe of grants

Md. crime control agency has wide funding latitude

Townsend oversees office

August 22, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Greg Garland | Gail Gibson and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Justice Department investigators trying to determine whether federal funds were misspent by a Maryland crime control office might face one central hurdle: vague guidelines established by their own agency for how the money can be used.

The department's grant-making arm, the Office of Justice Programs, gives states broad discretion in allocating funds and hiring employees. That could complicate the work of FBI agents and U.S. prosecutors who, in determining whether rules were broken, must first figure out what the rules were.

Officials with the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention said yesterday that authorities will find no wrongdoing. The agency has delivered "tens of thousands" of pages of documents to U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where a grand jury has been investigating activities at the state office at least since April.

Executive Director Stephen P. Amos said federal rules give his agency considerable spending freedom to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-crime programs. "It's not just allowable; it's recommended," he said. "I have a mandate to evaluate, provide technical assistance and monitor these programs and initiatives."

The crime-fighting office is overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and her signature agency has come under intense scrutiny as she enters the final months of the gubernatorial race.

Townsend, a Democrat, has dismissed the investigation as "political garbage," saying it was orchestrated by Republican U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who was appointed to his post last year with the strong backing of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Townsend's likely Republican opponent.

DiBiagio and Baltimore FBI officials have declined to comment on the investigation.

Sources familiar with the investigation have said the grand jury is investigating whether the crime agency improperly used federal funds for political purposes and whether grant money paid for employees who did no work.

The state records turned over to the grand jury yesterday included thousands of pages of work produced by more than 30 current and former employees at the crime control office, including personnel files.

Among the records was a database of grant awards compiled by Margaret T. Burns, a former communications director at the agency who has said publicly that the project was paid for with crime-fighting money but designed to benefit Townsend's campaign.

A copy of the database, obtained yesterday by The Sun under the state's public information laws, shows events tied to grant awards and details the amount and purpose of each event, the county where it was awarded, the date of the event and whether it received media coverage.

It also noted whether Townsend attended and spoke at the award presentation and listed the names of other public officials who were present. The database apparently was incomplete when Burns resigned from the office late last year.

Claims disputed

Burns has said she was directed by Alan Fleischmann, a top Townsend aide, to compile information that would illustrate Townsend's strengths and liabilities as she campaigned across the state this year.

Fleischmann and Amos have rejected Burns' claims, and the database is unlikely to be a smoking gun for prosecutors. Though some of the information could have been useful to a political campaign, agency officials said yesterday that it was basic information to help the agency's top officer do his job.

Amos said he was trying to get "a full accounting of everything" the agency has been doing, including events coordinated by the communications office. He said the records his agency provided to the grand jury will show that each of his employees was performing critical crime-fighting duties. "We have records, we have products, we have results," he said. "We have absolutely no employees unaccounted for in this agency."

The federal funds under scrutiny in the grand jury investigation are administered through the Justice Department's multibillion-dollar grant division, which has expanded rapidly over the past decade as oversight agencies have repeatedly raised questions about how well the money is monitored.

Rapid growth

According to records, the Office of Justice Programs awarded more than $5 billion in federal money last year across the country, including $122 million in Maryland. From 1990 to 2000, the office's national budget grew more than 300 percent, from $916 million to nearly $3.9 billion, according to a report released in March by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

As the amounts awarded each year to local governments, Indian tribes, nonprofit organizations and private, commercial organizations have soared, the Justice Department has struggled at times to account for the spending, oversight reports indicate.

The department's inspector general, in a report to Congress in December 2000, said the multibillion-dollar grant programs are a "high risk for fraud given the amount of money involved and tens of thousands of grantees."

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