A very disappointing “exposé” from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has been circulating over email lists. See: Poor Help: Federal Legal Aid Vulnerable to Fraud, Questions of Conflicts and Intimidation. The report is disappointing because it describes an instance of fraud in which a Maryland Legal Aid Bureau employee stole millions from the program -- taking money desperately needed to serve poor clients. The conduct of this employee is inexcusable and especially shameful because the money could have been used to stop evictions, protect women from domestic violence or represent children in dependency proceedings.
The report was also disappointing because it paints a false picture of the network of legal aid programs and the incredible work that they do. In an effort to sensationalize the theft in Maryland, CPI linked the story to a report prepared by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to Senator Grassley (a leading opponent of legal services) that contained recommendations to strengthen monitoring of grants made by the Legal Services Corporation.
The CPI reporting on this issue is incomplete and misleading.
First, while the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the largest funder of civil legal assistance in the United States, the majority of programs do not get LSC money. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia is not an LSC grantee. Most legal aid is provided by independent non-profits that raise their money from private foundations and the local bar. We care about what happens to LSC and its grantees, however. Our funding is inadequate to serve all clients who need our help and our colleagues who do get LSC money are an important part of the service network.
Second, the CPI story leaves the impression that there is rampant fraud throughout the legal aid community that goes unchecked by the Legal Services Corporation. CPI cites three examples of fraud among the thousands of programs that provide civil legal assistance. These instances are terrible, but they are rare and do not characterize the legal services movement. A quick Google search of “law firm embezzlement” reveals hundreds of recent stories of thefts from corporate firms, but no one would suggest that these criminal acts taint all corporate law firms.
Legal aid programs are mission driven organizations. Staff make great sacrifices do this work because they are deeply committed to justice and to working to end poverty. The starting salary for a Legal Aid lawyer in DC is $42,000, one fourth what a starting lawyer could make at a law firm (and our lawyers are as good as any lawyer in a corporate firm.) Our offices are humble, support is limited and there are very few perks beyond the love of the work. What Legal Aid lawyers do is hard and emotional, but the impact is enormous.
The reporting goes on to insinuate that there was something unseemly about having LSC staff attend the ABA Equal Justice Conference, which attracts hundreds of legal services and pro bono lawyers, because the ABA chose to have the conference at an Arizona resort. The conference center was chosen by the ABA because it was affordable, despite its description as a "resort." It was not the posh junket suggested by the article.
Third, the report fails to even acknowledge the legacy of assault by business groups and right wing legislators on LSC. The program has been a cause célèbre in conservative circles for years with periodic efforts to cripple or eliminate the program. Cuts, restrictions and endless audits and investigations are designed to demoralize and keep legal services lawyers from doing their jobs. One has to wonder if the spate of bad press, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigations and other reports is not tied to a concerted effort to defeat the reauthorization of LSC pending in Congress.
The embezzlement in Maryland damaged the cause of equal justice, but the way in which it was reported is far more harmful. The reporting fails to acknowledge that this fraud is an outlier and that some of the attacks on LSC are politically motivated. Stories like these continue to put legal services programs and their dedicated staff on the defensive.
If the reporters wanted to understand the real shame of the theft, rather than talk to the Senator Grassley or read OIG reports, they should have talked to the clients of legal services lawyers and tried to understand the importance of equal justice lawyering. While the attacks on legal services get all the ink, almost no one is writing about the family whose home was saved from foreclosure, the woman who got a civil protection order, the child who was adopted, the senior who had a Medicare problem fixed or the parent who was reunited with a child by a legal aid lawyer. Those are the real stories of legal aid.