September 26, 1999 | Commentary on Legal Issues
Sometimes you're grateful for the small victories. And so it was when the House of Representatives recently voted to cut spending for the controversial Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a quasi-federal agency that last year spent more than $300 million taxpayer dollars providing free legal aid to the poor.
Or at least that's what the LSC was supposed to be doing. As it turns out, the agency was grossly inflating the number of poor clients it served in an effort to secure higher funding.
The LSC claims it helped nearly 2 million people who could not otherwise afford legal help. Based on that claim, Congress dutifully forked over an extra $17 million for this year. But audits by the government's own watchdog agencies soon revealed that the lawyers at LSC were doing what lawyers do so well-shading the truth.
For example, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, one of the 269 offices in the country funded by LSC, claimed it closed 33,096 cases in 1997. But an audit showed that only 10,787 of those cases were legitimate. And Florida Rural Legal Services, another LSC grantee, was forced to admit that nearly 40,000 of the cases it claimed to have completed were invalid. Of the 23,800 cases that Legal Services of Miami claimed to have closed, auditors found only 7,607 were legitimate.
The reporting errors included counting some cases twice, reporting cases that did not exist, and counting all telephone inquiries as official "cases." A former 20-year employee of an LSC-funded program said just recently that he quit his job because the practices and policies of the agency had "all but destroyed the program's ability to render competent legal assistance."
And now, after suckering Congress into giving the agency more money and despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, LSC President John McKay has asked Congress for another $40 million increase for next year.
Of course, if being lied to isn't enough to get Congress to reassess whether the LSC deserves taxpayer dollars, perhaps this is: The agency defends felons and cheats who don't deserve taxpayer help.
In 1993, for example, an LSC grantee in Atlanta sued to halt the deportation of Cuban nationals convicted of committing serious crimes. In 1994, a Massachusetts LSC affiliate worked on behalf of a client who tried to sign up for welfare after blowing his $75,000 lottery jackpot on drugs and gambling. And in 1996, an LSC affiliate in Buffalo went to court to secure disability benefits for a man whose only problem, according to the judge, was laziness.
Every person in this country, regardless of income level, should have access to quality legal help. The thousands of private attorneys and organizations that undertake pro bono work for the needy are to be commended. The LSC, on the other hand, needs to be put on a glidepath to elimination, with its responsibilities given to states, local governments or the private sector.
Sure, the lawyers at the LSC will object. Congress should respond: "Overruled."
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Associated Press Wire