Legal aid program directors discussed firing watchdog

Sunday, September 24, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Directors of the government's legal aid program for the poor secretly debated how to fire the auditor who exposed their expensive meals, use of limousine services and headquarters move to a ritzy neighborhood.

Meeting transcripts obtained by The Associated Press show that Legal Services Corp. board members in 2005 and 2006 disparaged inspector general Kirt West, whose job is to find fraud, waste and abuse.

In private, the board derided West as abusive, a character assassin, a shoddy investigator with a delusional staff.

Board members warned themselves to be careful in their actions toward the internal watchdog, fearful that retaliation would anger Congress and jeopardize their federal dollars.

Some board members expressed their fears of angering Congress, the source of their funding, by leaving the perception they were retaliating against the inspector general who investigated their actions.

Those fears proved accurate when the board was ready to discuss West's status at a meeting in St. Louis last April. Two senators and a House member, who learned the directors had secretly debated firing West in secret meetings, were convinced that the board would take action in the April session.

Just as the directors were ready to convene after lunch, a congressional aide hand-delivered a letter to the board chairman, Atlanta lawyer Frank Strickland.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Rep. Christopher Cannon, R-Utah, warned Strickland that any attempt to fire West "would be an egregious action in light of the fact that Mr. West is investigating you, the LSC board, as well as your president."

West still has his job.

He conducted an expansive review of spending by board members, who are part-time, and top full-time program executives.

The board's vice chairman, University of Virginia law professor Lillian BeVier, headed the committee that was evaluating the inspector general. According to a transcript of the board's January 2006 meeting, BeVier summed up comments by a board colleague, Baltimore attorney Herbert Garten:

"I mean I understood Herb to say we should basically say 'You're fired,"' said BeVier.

"Yes, that's my opinion," replied Garten, a Baltimore lawyer. But Garten said he agreed with the board chairman on the need for a formal review to establish a record of the watchdog's performance.

BeVier also addressed board member Thomas Meites, a Chicago lawyer.

"You're just willing to ... take the steps to get him removed, as opposed to a probationary period or you've got six months or something," she said. Meites said he, too, agreed with the chairman that "basic fairness" required a formal review that would give the watchdog a chance to defend himself.

BeVier said, "He should know that he's got ... to shape up or we will ship him out." Then Meites said, "I can't tell you how little I want to spend any time with this guy."

West declined comment on the board discussions, as did Strickland, the board chairman. Both are scheduled to testify Tuesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee led by Rep. Cannon.

Garten declined comment. Messages left with Meites were not returned.

BeVier said in an interview the board had not decided whether to fire West and would not have done so at the April meeting.

"What we were trying to do was find a way to make a decision and find out whether impressions some members had were correct" about West's performance, she said.

Cannon has introduced a bill that would require votes of nine of the 11 Legal Services board members to fire the inspector general; a majority is required now.

The Utah Republican said in an interview that any attempt to fire the inspector general was "unseemly," and "the effect will be much harsher scrutiny by Congress on their activities."

"Instead of scapegoating this guy they should be looking at themselves and solving problems," Cannon said.

Added Sen. Grassley: "It looks like the Legal Services Corporation is busy looking for ways to shoot the messenger."

The nonprofit corporation is financed with a $330.8 million congressional appropriation. Most of the money is distributed to 138 nonprofit legal aid organizations across the country that provide free lawyers in certain types of civil cases -- including housing, domestic abuse, worker exploitation, divorce, and Social Security benefits.

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