A frequent U.S. Senate critic of federal spending is stepping up his attack on grants handed out by the Department of Justice.
The office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) today released a 42-page critique of DOJ programs that try to prevent crime through social services and community programs, including such events as basketball tournaments. The department calls the strategy “weed and seed,” and it dates to the anti-drug efforts of then-Attorney General William Barr, who served from 1991 to 1993.
Drawing on stories from local newspapers nationwide and from photos posted on Facebook, the report from Coburn’s office says the programs are a waste of money. It highlights, for example, a luau held in East Chattanooga, Tenn., and summer programs involving trips to amusement parks and bowling alleys.
“Amusement parks and bowling can never take the place of law enforcement, and taxpayers should never be forced to pay extra for police protection while available funds are being spent on such recreation when the evidence is lacking to demonstrate such activities reduce crime,” says the report (PDF), titled "Party at the D.O.J."
Vivian Hixson, site director for East Chattanooga Weed and Seed, said the report is incorrect when it says the May luau involved DOJ funds. In a phone interview today, Hixson said that, although photos were later posted on a Weed and Seed page on Facebook, the luau was staffed by volunteers and paid for with private donations. It was for children and included an education component, she said.
“This is not some luau party like he’s making it sound,” Hixson said. She added that Coburn’s office did not contact her before issuing its report. “I wish that we had been asked,” she said, “because I think that we could have cleared this up very easily.”
Told of the Chattanooga program's response, Coburn spokesman John Hart wrote in an e-mail: “In many of these cases, it comes down to a question of whether the funds in question are fungible. Also, because DOJ does not track the funds, it is difficult to pin this down."
In a June 18 letter (PDF) to Coburn, David Maurer of the Government Accountability Office wrote that breaking out DOJ spending on recreational activities is difficult because the department “does not require grant recipients to itemize and associate costs with each individual activity.” Moreover, Maurer wrote, it can be difficult to separate purely “recreational” activities from activities designed to prevent crime.
In testimony before a congressional committee in April, Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson defended the practice of sending seed money to community groups, saying it “has been an important element in encouraging innovative, place-based community responses to crime.” Robinson heads DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, which last year awarded $5.6 billion in grants to states, localities and American Indian tribes.
This isn’t the first time Coburn has criticized the “weed and seed” strategy. In March 2009, he proposed eliminating funding for such programs.
Updated at 4:15 with Hart's comment.