Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson headed the Office of Justice Programs during the Clinton administration and has returned for a second round under President Barack Obama.
OJP is charged with preventing crime through research and development and managing the DOJ’s grant programs. Among the offices Robinson oversees are the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Office for Victims of Crime.
In an interview with Main Justice this week, Robinson talked about the changes since she headed OJP in the 1990s — the added burden of national security work on state and local law enforcement and the evolution of the Internet. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Main Justice: This is your second stint as the head of the Office of Justice Programs. What changes have you noticed since your return?
Laurie Robinson: In the broader landscape, there have been huge changes coming back in the Post-9/11 era. Not only has the Department changed in that time, obviously with the focus on terrorism and national security, but for our constituency — state and local juvenile justice and tribal communities, state and local law enforcement — is grappling not only with local crime but with the added duties related to homeland security. That’s particularly difficult now in a time of diminished resources, a very stark difference from when I was here in the 90s.
One of the greatest differences from when I was here before was the technology changes in early 2000, the use of the Web was really in its infancy. We now have a much greater ability to reach our constituents. The world has changed in that regard, and I think it’s given us much greater tools to do our work [with] in this regard to complete our mission, which is sharing information and really engaging with our constituents in a two-way conversation…learning from them, and then sharing learning programs, technical assistance and really engaging in [a] partnership with them.
MJ: How have you seen local and state authorities dealing with those added national security challenges?
Robinson: I think it’s been a huge challenge. It’s been a huge challenge that both the last administration and the new administration and the country has grappled with. I think that state and local law enforcement has dealt with it actually very well, but that it remains, as I say, a challenge. They’re on the front lines in this country, as we saw with the Times Square episode in the last few days, you know it’s a challenge that requires alert members of the public, as we saw with the vendors in Times Square, as we saw with state and local law enforcement working hand in hand.
It doesn’t mean that in every instance everything will go like clockwork. But I think that nobody ever said that state and local law enforcement work is easy. I think that people go into this work because the seek challenges and this is one more thing on the plate.
MJ: What are the priorities you’ve set for the Office of Justice Programs?
Robinson: We don’t often have a chance to go back and have a second shot at a job, and I actually have to tell you… I never ever thought I would come back to OJP. I had to have my arm twisted to do this. I had a really nice life in academia and [Attorney General] Eric Holder really leaned on me to come back here. I’m very honored to be back here, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m not honored to do this. But coming back in, it’s kind of like with my eyes wide open, and say, ‘Ok. If I’m going to do it, I have some priorities here.’
There are three priorities. One — that we had to strengthen the partnerships with states, localities and the tribes. I thought that had weakened somewhat in recent years. So one of the first things I did here when I came back on Jan. 28, 2009, just a few days after the inauguration on an acting basis. I scheduled a series of listening sessions with constituent organizations across the board — juvenile justice, crime victims, domestic violence. To have them come in and tell us: what’s the agency doing well, what are we not doing well. It’s easy if you’re brand new, you’re not defensive about it.
MJ: What did you hear back?
Robinson: Well we heard a lot of things, we heard everything from ‘You should be doing more to address pre-trial issues’ to ‘You aren’t getting your publications out quickly enough. You aren’t giving us information on rewards in a fast enough fashion. You should be more open about what kind of solicitations are out there.’ It was terrific to get that.
A lot of these groups said they hadn’t been invited in for eight years. So I thought it was really good just to open the doors and have organizations come in.
The second priority is evidence-based approaches. I think you’ve heard Eric Holder speak about this. We’ve had leading scientists nominated to lead both NIJ – National Institute of Justice – and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Both of them – John Laub and Jim Lynch – are awaiting confirmation. I’m always an optimist, I’m hoping they’ll be confirmed within the next weeks. That will be the first time in John Lauden’s case that we’ll have had a criminologist heading the National Institute of Justice since it was created back in 1968 by the Safe Streets Act.
We’re bringing in scientists to speak at NIJ, we’re bringing in scientists to meet with the Attorney General on various topics, and very importantly we’ve launched something called the Evidence Integration Initiative. It’s about [a few] things – one of them is about producing more evidence, because there are a lot of areas in which we don’t have enough research on what really works.
[Another] part is translating the evidence for the field. You can have all types of journal articles, long articles about, for example, domestic violence. But if you’re a small town mayor in Des Moines, Iowa, you don’t have time to go the the library and read those journal articles. You would like to have a page or two that says what I should be doing on drug issues, what should I be doing about cops dealing with domestic violence.
As I look back on my time in the 90s here, that’s one thing I would give myself a low mark on, that we did not do enough distilling of research. So I came back and heaped on the idea that I need to synthesize evidence better or distill it. So we put into the president’s budget request — well we recommended and he put in — two items. One of them is a what works clearinghouse on crime, and the second is a diagnostics center, or what I call a help desk.
The other piece of this is…that Congress has put so many different funding streams into OJP and the COPS office and the Office of Violence Against Women. Alone in OJP, we have over 75 different funding streams. For that mayor in Des Moines to know all those funding streams… that’s asking far too much of them. We need to have one place they can go.
My third priority is to ensure that our grants and grant process is run with integrity, and that the process is fair, transparent, and competitive. There have been issues in the past about whether the process was fully transparent and competitive. I am fully committed to working hand in hand with the Inspector General to make sure this is a process which is not only perceived as open and fair but in fact is.
All of this was not done thoroughly in the past, and we want a transparent system. I’ve written grant applications, a lot of people here have, and I want to make sure we make this a clear and easy system for our constituents. Writing grant applications is not a fun process, so we shouldn’t make it more difficult.
MJ: What sort of new programs are you seeing an interest in funding from the field and in Congress?
Robinson: I’ve actually seen far greater interest at this point than when I was here before on Capitol Hill… in funding evidence-based programs. I’ve seen [it] on both sides of the aisle, which is extraordinarily promising. As an example, Sen. Jeff Sessions…is someone [to] whom I have spoken several times about science-based approaches and he’s been extraordinarily supportive.
Particularly in times when we’re looking at tight federal budgets, people want to ensure that we’re getting the best bang of the buck in federal dollars, in federal spending. And why would we be expending money in programs which haven’t proved to make a difference, particularly in such an important area as crime?
One priority for us, in the president’s budget for 2011 [is] the proposal to devote three percent of OJP’s budget as a set aside for research and statistics. I think that proposal, if approved, would represent a powerful statement of the effect of R & D (research and development) investment by the government in recognizing that we need to invest in preventing and crime.
That’s something that the private industry does – you have to make the initial investments in order to successfully prevent and control disease, and we need to do the same thing in crime.
MJ: The stimulus package meant a lot more work for your office. How did you deal with the influx of grant applications?
Robinson: Just a few weeks after I stepped into the job last year, Congress of course passed the stimulus bill, and we were off and running with $2.7 billion dollars in new money to get out the door. I’m very proud of the fact that within about seven months we were able to get out almost 3,900 grants and get out almost 99 percent of that funding.
The way we were able to do it is that I have here at OJP a remarkable team of career staff. I’d like to particularly mention our career Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth McGarry. There was a career staff that was in place when I walked in who were already dealing with the potential that if the Recovery Act passed, there would be an increased workload. The Recovery Act funding issued equaled in effect, the workload that OJP would have ordinarily covered in an entire year.
I was so pleased [when] at the end of the summer, when we were getting out all of those grants, [Attorney General Eric Holder] came over to thank the staff and then was willing to have his picture taken with each one of the offices. If you have the time to walk through all the offices and cubicles, you’d see people have these pictures up.
MJ: How closely does the division work with other divisions across the department in relaying problems that are brought to your attention by state and local law enforcement?
Robinson: We work extremely closely with other parts of the department, ranging from the COPS office to the Office of Violence Against Women — who are our colleagues on the grant side in dealing with state and localities — to working very closely with the Criminal Division, the Deputy’s Office, the Associate’s Office.
As an example, we are on one of the working groups on Intellectual Property because of our work on that subject, working with states and localities. We participated on the executive working group that is the link to state attorneys general and state district attorneys. We have the executive office of U.S. Attorneys working in the Criminal Division. We meet regularly with the AGAC, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee Group of U.S. Attorneys. So every Friday, I’m meeting with the component heads of the component heads, I’m meeting regularly with the Attorney General on things that he and I are working on.
So very regular communication. What that reflects is that Eric Holder has as one of his highest priorities the integration of state and local interests, integrating them into the priorities of the department.
The whole notion of the relationship and importance of that relationship with state and local law enforcement is something that he has embedded throughout the whole structure of the Justice Department. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ll get to you when we get to you.’ He communicates that throughout the department about the states and localities being partners in our work. It’s not an afterthought. It’s really very much integral to the way the department operates. The tone for that is really set at the top.
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Melodee Hanes, the live-in girlfriend of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) who withdrew as a candidate for Montana U.S. Attorney over conflict of interest concerns, moderated a panel discussion today in the “Senate” room at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. The topic was improving legal representation for juveniles who can’t afford an attorney.
Hanes is the acting Deputy Administrator for Policy in the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an arm of the DOJ that supports research, training and programs for juvenile justice programs throughout the country. Hanes received the political appointment in OJP last June, a few months after she withdrew her candidacy for Montana U.S. Attorney.
When asked how her job is going, Hanes sweetly told Main Justice: “I don’t have any comments today.”
Hanes then thanked Main Justice for the question and quickly walked out of the room. Main Justice broke the story on her relationship with the powerful senator, who had recommended her along with two others for the plum federal prosecuting job.
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The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed legislation today that would reauthorize certain juvenile delinquency program funds.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2009 would renew the program funding provisions in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 until fiscal year 2014. The 1974 legislation was due for reauthorization three years ago. The program authorizes funding to states with special practices for handling youth in their justice systems.
The panel voted 12-7 on the 2009 bill this morning at its markup. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, agreeing with Republican concerns over the projected $4 billion price tag for the legislation.
Feinstein, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the bill calls for a “huge authorization” that would be hard to justify with the $1.7 trillion federal deficit.
“I would be very hard pressed to appropriate these sums of money for this purpose at this particular point in time,” Feinstein said at the panel markup.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is a sponsor of the bill, cited a New York Times editorial from yesterday that called on the Senate to move on the bill. He first introduced the reauthorization legislation in 2008.
“The Senate Judiciary Committee reported this important bipartisan legislation last year,” Leahy said in a statement. “We should ensure that it passes into law in this Congress.”
Several new provisions were added.
The committee voted 10-9 to adopt an amendment offered by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that would require the U.S. Comptroller General to audit the performance of the Justice Department Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention, which handles the juvenile justice grants. He said the language was necessary because there were concerns about the effectiveness of some of the programs funded by the office.
Leahy, who voted against the amendment, said the comptroller provision was unnecessary since the bill already called for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Office administrator to submit a report to Congress on its activities.
“I think you’re crazy for not taking this amendment,” Grassley told Leahy during debate on the amendment.
The other amendments approved by unanimous consent added provisions that would allow youth and family serving organizations to apply for juvenile justice grants, help state and local law enforcement agencies implement new strategies to combat crime and would clarify some of the language in the original version of the 2009 bill.
The panel rejected an amendment by its ranking member, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), by a 6-13 vote. The amendment would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults if accused of murder, rape or other serious offenses.
The House does not have a companion bill.
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The girlfriend of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was interested in the Montana U.S. Attorney post years before he recommended her to the White House for the job and before she ever went to work for him, the Associated Press reported today.
Melodee Hanes was positioning herself to be Montana’s top federal prosecutor for at least the past seven years, Yellowstone County, Mont., attorney Dennis Paxinos, her former boss and a Republican, told the AP.
Hanes left her job as Yellowstone deputy county attorney in 2002 to work for Baucus’ re-election campaign after serving in the county prosecutor’s office since 1999. Paxinos told the news wire that she made the move to politics with the belief that it would better position her for the U.S. Attorney post.
“I don’t think it was ever her intent to fall in love with a senator,” Paxinos told the AP.
We were the first to report Friday that Hanes was one of three finalists whose names Baucus submitted to the White House as potential nominees for U.S. Attorney for Montana. Hanes withdrew earlier this year to live with the senator in Washington. President Barack Obama ultimately nominated Michael Cotter for Montana U.S. Attorney.
Hanes is now acting Deputy Administrator for Policy in the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an arm of the Justice Department that supports research, training and programs to support juvenile justice programs throughout the country.
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Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) didn’t tell White House or Justice Department officials involved in the Montana U.S. Attorney selection process that he was in a personal relationship with one of the candidates he’d recommended, according to news reports over the weekend.
Montana’s senior senator didn’t reveal his relationship with Melodee Hanes to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) or to Dana Christensen, a Kalispell, Mont., lawyer who screened six candidates for the post, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“I’ve known Max a long time. I’ve known Mel Hanes a long time. But I did not know that they had a relationship,” Christensen told the Wall Street Journal.
What isn’t known is whether Baucus’s former chief of staff, Jim Messina, was aware of the relationship. Messina is a White House deputy chief of staff. Messina and White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
We were the first to report Friday that Hanes withdrew earlier this year as a finalist for Montana U.S. Attorney to live with the senator in Washington.
Hanes, who worked on Baucus’ Senate staff from 2003 to June 2009, is now a political appointee at the Justice Department, serving as acting Deputy Administrator for Policy in the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The DOJ office supports research, training and programs for juvenile justice programs throughout the country.
Hanes was one of six Montana U.S. Attorney candidates who Baucus forwarded to Christensen for review. Christensen then narrowed the list down to three candidates: Hanes; Mike Wheat, a Bozeman, Mont., lawyer; and Michael Cotter, who has since been nominated for Montana U.S. Attorney. Baucus and Tester then reviewed the three finalists and sent them to the White House for final consideration.
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The live-in girlfriend of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is a political appointee at the Justice Department, DOJ spokesperson Tracy Schmaler told Main Justice today.
Both the Justice Department and Baucus issued statements Saturday stressing that Melodee Hanes, who had been the senator’s state director and one of Baucus’s recommendations for Montana U.S. Attorney, was hired for her qualifications.
“Mel applied independently with the Department of Justice, and, not surprisingly to anyone who’s looked at her resume, got the DOJ job on her merit,” Baucus said in a statement.
Hanes in June became acting Deputy Administrator for Policy in the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an arm of the DOJ that supports research, training and programs for juvenile justice programs throughout the country.
She was hired at Justice “because of her decades of experience in the field,” DOJ spokesperson Hannah August said in a statement.
Neither the Montana senator nor members of his Senate staff lobbied the administration to appoint Hanes to the DOJ political job, August added.
Justice spokeswoman Schmaler wasn’t immediately able to say what type of political appointment Hanes received. Executive branch standards for hiring and retaining political appointees vary. Some political appointees can be hired without using “traditional competitive hiring procedures,” according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
As Main Justice first reported Friday, Hanes withdrew from consideration as Montana’s U.S. Attorney earlier this year over concerns that her personal relationship with the senator presented a conflict of interest.
Baucus, as the state’s senior senator, had recommended Hanes and two other lawyers for the plum post as Montana’s top federal prosecutor earlier this year. At the time, Hanes was on Baucus’s Senate payroll as his state director and had already become romantically involved with the senator.
In March, Hanes said she had withdrawn from consideration for U.S. Attorney because she had “been presented with other opportunities that I felt I could not bypass,” The Associated Press reported at the time.
In June, she left Baucus’s staff and joined the Justice Department.
“Mel and I were both separated from our former spouses when we got together. It wasn’t an ‘affair,’ Baucus said in his statement. “As we grew closer and things progressed, we knew it was time to begin the process of Mel transitioning out of my Senate office.
The revelation that Baucus had recommended a staffer with whom he was romantically involved for a U.S. Attorney position comes at an awkward moment for the Senate Finance Committee chairman. The Montanan is the Senate Democrats’ point man on health care reform, and has already been under scrutiny for his ties to health care industry lobbyists.
The Republican National Committee on Saturday called for a Senate ethics investigation of Baucus, questioning whether he used “his Senate office to advance a taxpayer funded appointment for his staff-member girlfriend.” The situation “raises a whole host of ethical questions,” the RNC said.
The Senate is working through the weekend on the historic health care legislation, with Baucus leading the floor debate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement of support. “Max is a good friend, an outstanding senator and he has my full support,” the statement said, according to The Associated Press.
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J. Robert Flores, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention during the Bush administration, broke federal ethics and contracting rules when he used ideological considerations in awarding more than $250,000 in sole-source contracts, said a report released by the the DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine today.
The IG did not refer the case to prosecutors for further action against Flores. The report found he subcontracted work to Hector Rene Fonseca, a former Colombian military official, for Aspen SystemslLockheed Martin and later DB Consulting on anti-gang programs from November 2004 to July 2007. The report, however, said Flores broke rules when he only considered Fonseca for a position primarily because of his work on the faith-based group Samaritan’s Purse.
“The position was not open to competition and there was no justification for Fonseca being considered as a ’sole source’ uniquely qualified for the position,” the report said. “Indeed, an earlier request by Flores to hire Fonseca directly as the ’sole source’ was denied by the Office of the [Assistant Attorny General] for [Office of Justice Programs].”
Fonseca was tasked with such responsibilities as conference planning, writing and editing while he was subcontracted. But witnesses interviewed by the IG said they “did not know what Fonseca did for OJJDP and could not point to any benefit to OJJDP programs from Fonseca’s work.”
The DOJ Inspector General found “documentation of Fonseca’s work was not sufficient,” but “Fonseca’s contract was [not] a misuse of OJJDP funds.”
“Flores told the OIG that he did not hire Fonseca to write great reports but rather for the work he could do to further the faith-based initiative,” the report said. “Flores added that he attributed any deficiencies in Fonseca’s reports to Fonseca’s possible difficulties with the English language.”
DOJ Inspector General also investigated the grants Flores and then-Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs Regina Schofield gave to various organizations including the World Golf Foundation’s First Tee Initiative, which has connections to Republicans including former president George H. W. Bush, its honorary chair. The DOJ Inspector General, however, could not determine whether these grants were improperly awarded because there was little documentation regarding the award allocations.
“We were pleased that the OIG concluded its investigation without any further action to be taken with respect to Mr. Flores,” wrote Flores’s attorney Elliot S. Berke, in a letter to the DOJ Inspector General. “We were also pleased to learn that the majority of allegations were determined to be unsubstantiated.”
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