Death By Chocolate, At Taxpayer Expense


By: Michael M. Bates

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) gets over $300 million a year from you and me, purportedly to provide legal assistance to the poor. This is done through grants given to about 140 local programs throughout the country.

The Associated Press reported last month on “the luxuries that executives of the Legal Services Corp. have given themselves with federal money – from $14 ‘Death by Chocolate’ desserts to $400 chauffeured rides to locations within taxi distance of their offices.”

The story also noted that the corporation’s own inspector general questioned whether the agency’s headquarters is too large and if too much is paid in rent. Then there was that $220 taxi ride taken in Ireland by LSC’s president who was there for a conference.

Those wasted tax dollars represent only the tip of the iceberg. Since its inception, the Legal Services Corporation and the way it has operated have been extremely controversial.

Those of us with long memories can recall when conservatives, led by President Ronald Reagan, tried to abolish it because of its often radical actions.

Legal services in Oregon represented Planned Parenthood in challenging a state law that limited the number of abortions a woman could have paid for by welfare. In Pennsylvania, an LSC grantee fought a law that required parental or spousal consent before an abortion could be performed.

LSC grantees opposed welfare requirements such as naming the father of an illegitimate child or being a citizen in order to receive aid. They helped alcoholics and drug users apply for Social Security disability benefits. In Massachusetts, an LSC grantee published a brochure advising welfare recipients they could stay on the rolls by using lottery winnings to prepay rent, take a vacation, or buy a special gift.

A Georgia LSC grantee sued the state to force it to pay for a sex change operation. Other legal service grantees argued that minors not wanting to live at home are entitled to their own welfare benefits, that public housing administrators should be forced to rent apartments to minors, and that children be given legal standing to sue their own parents.

In Pennsylvania, a convicted rapist sued for custody of a child he fathered when he raped a 13-year-old girl. He had an extensive criminal record and a psychologist testified any child in his care would be in danger. An LSC grantee represented the rapist.

Legal Services has a special place in its collective heart for criminals. It filed petitions for the release of one man from a maximum security mental hospital who had slashed his grandparents’ throats. In Florida, it sued a jail for segregating HIV-positive inmates from the general population. This was because the policy supposedly violated the privacy of the HIV-positive prisoners.

Drugs and crime are often rampant in public housing. Yet when various housing authorities tried to evict drug dealers, LSC grantees were there to protect them. One tenant in Philadelphia set fire to her own apartment and was scheduled to be evicted. Legal Services attempted to prevent that from happening.

LSC grantees notoriously participated in political advocacy, something explicitly forbidden. In California, for example, it lobbied against a proposed state income tax cut.

A decade ago, Congress tried to reform the Legal Services Corporation. The changes didn’t take.

Audits done a couple of years later revealed massive misreporting in the number of people LSC claimed to have helped. In one General Accounting Office review, more than a third of the cases claimed could not be validated.

In 1996, Congress wanted to make certain LSC funds were used for legal representation, not lobbying. It also wanted to end legal representation for aliens not physically present in the U.S. Yet another clear intent was the prohibition of funding class action law suits.

All these efforts failed. Former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese told a congressional committee in 2002 that “it has become clear that Legal Services Corporation remains uncommitted to reform, unaccountable to the courts, and unresponsive to Congress.”

One reason conservatives are displeased with Congressional Republicans is their unwillingness to use their majority status to dump the Legal Services Corporation and other failed remnants of the war on poverty. The best they and the president offer are puny reductions in a budget that should be zeroed out.

The Legal Services Corporation deserves to die. And not by $14 “Death by Chocolate” desserts.

This Michael M. Bates column appeared in the September 28, 2006 Reporter Newspapers.

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