Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
May 6, 2001
Legal Services Corp. Is Activist Front


by: F.R. Duplantier

"Legal services groups are supposed to give the poor equal access to the justice system. In fact, they give an advantage to particular political groups and causes."

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is "supposed to provide free legal assistance to the poor in civil matters," comments Kenneth Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center. "What was initially a small program within the Office of Economic Opportunity," he notes, "was later set up to be independent of the executive branch. While LSC depends on government funding, it is not subject to many laws and oversight procedures that control government agencies," Boehm observes. "Supporters say this independence keeps the program free from political interference. In practice," he charges, "lack of oversight gives the program's activist lawyers wide latitude to pursue political and ideological causes."

In a recent issue of Organization Trends, published by the Capital Research Center, Boehm argues that "LSC was designed to be uniquely unaccountable. For Fiscal Year 2000," he reports, "LSC has received $305 million. More than 95 percent of its annual federal funding is disbursed in grants to about 250 separately incorporated local legal services groups. These groups support approximately 3,500 attorneys who are free to decide which cases to pursue."

Boehm notes that "LSC's lack of accountability to the executive branch has led the General Accounting Office (GAO) to repeatedly probe allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse. But GAO also has determined that the federal government has no authority to recover misspent funds. While it is a federal felony for a federal official to misappropriate government funds," he remarks, "it is not a federal felony for legal services officials to do so."

Boehm points out that local groups receiving grants from the Legal Services Corporation generally get "automatic grant renewals. The LSC board determines the amount of the grant for each group by the number of people who live in poverty in its service area," he emphasizes, "not by the quality of the services the group provides them. In this respect, legal services groups are quite unlike many other nonprofit groups," says Boehm. "Many social service providers strive to excel in a fierce competition for grants from private foundations," he affirms. "But legal services groups form a self-protective network."

Boehm recalls that "Congress tried to remedy this flaw in 1996 when it tied LSC's appropriation to a grant competition requirement. Unfortunately," he remarks, "legal services lawyers have easily evaded the obligation by following a competition process which heavily favors existing programs. Only a handful of the approximately 250 existing programs have ever lost a grant competition to a new program."

Boehm urges President Bush to "consider abolishing the present Legal Services Corporation. If there is to be a federal role in the delivery of legal services to the poor," he advises, "any funding must totally bypass the present network of programs, which has proven beyond argument to be opposed to any reasonable reform." In the meantime, says Boehm, the President should "appoint members to the LSC board who will obey the mandates of Congress rather than seek to evade them."