September 14, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought
Anyone who's watched a police drama knows the drill: "You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you." That's why state and local governments maintain public defender's offices -- to ensure that anyone charged with a crime has access to a capable lawyer.
If only the government stopped there.
Back in the 1960s, as part of President Johnson's so-called War on Poverty, Washington decided it would "help" poor people in civil matters, too. It started the Office of Economic Opportunity Legal Services, supposedly to provide publicly funded legal services to poor Americans. But like most big-government programs, OEO Legal Services didn't work very well. Sure, it spent a lot of money, but it often didn't accomplish its goals.
In 1974, the Nixon administration renamed it the Legal Services Corporation, but failed to remedy the defects.
The corporation now says it needs more money. It's seeking an increase of $85 million this year, which would give it a budget of $411.8 million.
But the corporation might not need additional taxpayer dollars if it didn't waste so much. As the Associated Press recently reported, "the luxuries executives of Legal Services have given themselves with federal money [range] from $14 'Death by Chocolate' desserts to $400 chauffeured rides to locations within cab distance of their offices." LSC also overpays for office space. It shells out about $8 more per square foot than other tenants in the same building for its headquarters in the posh Georgetown section of Washington. Maybe its lawyers should review that lease.
Meanwhile, Frank Strickland, the LSC board chairman, probably should consider taking public transit. After the corporation hired a limousine to take him to Capitol Hill, Strickland's own comptroller raised a red flag. "With cab fares from our office to Capitol Hill costing $20 and the nominal cost of a cab to Arlington Cemetery and return, this $423.99 seems to be an extraordinary cost," he wrote in an internal memo. Indeed.
Waste isn't the only problem at LSC, though. It also has trouble following the restrictions Congress sets.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese outlined some LSC abuses during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee in 2002. For example, in the late 1990s lawmakers specifically told LSC it couldn't represent aliens who weren't physically present in the United States.
"In spite of Congress' prohibition," Meese testified, "an LSC recipient sent letters to a number of farm workers in Mexico in 1998 and traveled there to recruit potential clients for lawsuits against American farmers."
Later, to explain it hadn't actually broken the law, LSC played the Washington word game. It claimed the words "is present" actually mean "is now or once was present." (Makes you wonder how they define "is.")
Congress also prohibits LSC from supporting any individual or group that "initiates or participates in a class action." Yet LSC grantees have filed class-action suits in Georgia and California, and the corporation has taken no action to stop them. "In dismissing complaints from members of Congress and watchdog organizations, LSC maintained that the California action was not a class action but a 'representative action' and, as such, did not fall under the congressional restrictions," Meese told lawmakers.
Obviously, if LSC would stop wasting funds representing people it isn't supposed to, it would have more money to spend representing needy people. Instead of increasing LSC's budget, lawmakers ought to turn the corporation's job back over to states, localities and private organizations. That's the best way to ensure that everyone involved gets a fair hearing.
First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times