California Legal Aid Officials Complain of Federal Monitors
Officials of California Rural Legal Assistance, the federally funded legal aid program for the rural poor, have lodged sharp complaints in Washington about a federal monitoring team that is examining the program’s books and management practices, The Times has learned.
In this latest outburst in the long-running feud between CRLA and the Reagan Administration, the Legal Services Corp.--the quasi-independent firm that oversees all federally funded legal programs--is being accused of packing the audit team with CRLA enemies.
The 17-member monitoring team appointed by the corporation is headed by a former National Rifle Assn. lobbyist and includes a former Immigration and Naturalization Service official once sued by Texas Rural Legal Aid and a retired executive of the American Farm Bureau, a longtime opponent of CRLA.
In a long letter of protest to John Wentzel, president of the Legal Services Corp., CRLA Executive Director Jose R. Padilla declared that the audit team “is incapable of producing a fair and impartial evaluation” and charged that several members have “backgrounds reflecting strong antipathies to the rural poor.”
A copy of the letter was made available to The Times.
Similar complaints were lodged against audit teams monitoring rural legal assistance programs in Texas, Arizona and Maryland. CRLA’s friends in Congress and the American Bar Assn. have also protested.
Legal Services Corp. officials responded that they are seeking only a professional evaluation of the program by “arms-length” monitors.
“If CRLA is doing the job that Congress and LSC want. . . , the in-depth monitoring will only show strengths and show what areas need to improve. But if the program is transgressing its stewardship responsibilities, it needs to be rebuked. . . . That kind of mismanagement is a slap in the face of the poor,” Charles Jarvis, corporation vice president, said in an interview.
CRLA, which got its first financing in 1966, operates a $5.2-million legal aid program from 15 offices throughout the state. It often goes to court on behalf of farm workers and the rural poor against major growers and county, state and federal agencies. Just over $1 million of its budget comes from a California State Bar trust fund and from donations; the rest is federal funds administered by Legal Services Corp.
The Legal Services Corp., created by Congress in 1976, is a quasi-independent agency with a $305-million annual budget. It funnels federal dollars to 325 legal aid programs employing 6,000 lawyers across the nation. An 11-member board of directors, all appointed by President Reagan, governs the corporation.
Early in his first term, Reagan sought to eliminate federal funding for CRLA and similar programs. That effort was defeated in Congress.
By law the programs funded by the Legal Services Corp. must be monitored for legal proficiency and fiscal responsibility every 18 months. The current controversy stems from a shift in audit tactics. Previously, each legal assistance program was audited by panels of senior legal services attorneys from other programs. The auditors were selected by regional officials. The current, more aggressive monitoring program is run by the corporation’s top officials in Washington.
“Monitoring used to be constructive oversight; now it is a negative police operation that is very confrontational,” said Hulett Askew, director of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Assn. and former LSC director of monitoring.
Legal Services Corp. board member LeaAnne Bernstein said the corporation wants “independent, arms-length” monitoring, not the “incestuous . . . you-pat-my-back-I’ll-pat-your-back " evaluations that she said were typical under the previous monitoring system.
“This is not one big happy family . . . (nor) is it the general counsel for the poor. Legal service programs must respond to the individual needs of the poor,” Bernstein said.
The audit team arrived at CRLA’s San Francisco central office Oct. 1. The auditors asked to examine thousands of documents and interviewed CRLA attorneys and staff in San Francisco and in field offices. They returned to Washington on Oct. 18 to draft a report.
The team was headed by James O. E. Norell, a longtime lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn., and included Jack F. Angell, who recently retired after 27 years as an American Farm Bureau specialist in farm labor issues. The former INS official who was sued by Texas Rural Legal Aid is Charles Perez. The remaining audit team members have backgrounds in international trade, criminal investigation, marketing and public relations.
In the letter, and in interviews with The Times, CRLA officials complained about what they termed the auditors’ “confrontational” tactics. “It was like a McCarthy hearing,” said Claudia Smith, directing attorney of the Salinas office, who was questioned for four hours by the monitors.
The new audit system has come under fire from other sources as well.
In an October letter to the chairman of Legal Service Commission, the American Bar Assn. expressed “grave concerns” about the new auditing practices, warning that “unless new due-process safeguards are implemented,” such investigations could turn into “open-ended fishing expeditions.”
‘Pure Conflict of Interest’
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a member of the House subcommittee that oversees the program, also is critical. “They (Legal Services Corp. officials) claim monitors are nonpolitical and have expertise in law or accounting, but then we learn people like Jack Angell and Perez are on the team monitoring both California and Texas Rural Legal,” he said in an interview. “That is a pure conflict of interest.”
Members of the audit team declined to comment on the complaints, and Jarvis defended them. “Local programs have not been monitored exactingly ever before,” he said. “There is no confrontation (in their tactics). . . . These people are to be objective but completely detailed in their analysis.”
Some CRLA attorneys claim that the audit has already had a chilling effect on CRLA, pointing to the recent suspension of a CRLA attorney for filing a controversial lawsuit without the permission of the program’s senior attorney.
“That message is they don’t want us to file aggressive suits, they want us to run the office the way the (Legal Services Corp.) wants us to run it,” one lawyer claimed.
CRLA officials denied any connection between the audit and the suspension. They said the lawyer was suspended because she failed to follow proper procedure.