Do you want a criminal living next door? Of course not.
But if attorneys funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) have their way, you may not be able to get rid of them. What's worse, your tax dollars are paying for LSC. And they claim they are working for your best interests.
For example, Florida Rural Legal Services (FRLS), an LSC affiliate, has tried to stop the evictions of drug dealers and violent criminals from public housing. Opposing the Clinton Administration's "One Strike You're Out" policy of removing lawbreakers from public housing, legal services lawyers contend entire households should not be evicted because they cannot control the criminal tendencies of a relative or guest. As a result, most housing authorities enforce the rule, which is strongly supported by public housing residents, sparingly or not at all.
This isn't the response the Clinton Administration expected when they started the "One Strike" program. Their goal was to swiftly rid public housing of problem tenants. Each case filed by LSC affiliates, however, costs the housing authority approximately $4,000 and may last several years. Despite this high cost, many still believe it's worth fighting. Barry Seaman, manager of the Stuart Housing Authority, says, "Drugs are a killer, we have to protect our tenants."
Established by Congress in 1974 to provide non-criminal legal assistance to the poor and disadvantaged minorities, the Legal Services Corporation - which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month - has evolved into a radical bastion of taxpayer-funded attorneys pursuing cases far from its founders' intentions. In the past few years, studies of LSC affiliates found attorneys defending foreign drug smugglers, blocking the deportation of illegal aliens arrested for gang violence and trying to gain Social Security benefits for drug dealers and career criminals.
Restrictions championed by conservative congressmen in 1996 sought to prohibit LSC affiliates from lobbying, filing class action lawsuits and representing illegal aliens. But, according to Chris Oberst of the National Legal and Policy Center, "The reforms have helped, but have encouraged crafty lawyers to find other ways around the rules." He said a favorite trick of LSC affiliates is to "set up mirror organizations, where the support staff and equipment are shared. This creates a partially funded organization that can avoid the rules set by Congress. Many LSC funded lawyers even claim to be part-time, allowing them to file restricted lawsuits at the taxpayer expense."
While LSC claims it has assisted millions of down-on-their-luck Americans in an attempt to justify increased funding, investigators recently discovered gross exaggerations of the actual number of people actually helped.
LSC's 1997 Fact Book claims its affiliates served two million people, but these figures are now being seriously questioned. LSC's auditor found many of the cases used to reach this figure were counted twice, did not exist or were serving people who were simply ineligible for legal assistance. An audit of three affiliates originally claiming to have helped 15% of the poor residents in their regions found they only truly aided 3% - raising their cost per client by 500%. Meanwhile, five other affiliates were found to have overstated their workloads by 90,000 cases.
While poor blacks and others are being short-changed on federal funds allocated to benefit them, LSC officials are financing tropical getaways for themselves. LSC directors held meetings this year at resorts in Puerto Rico and Miami, where rooms cost between $250 and $750 a night.
Congressional liberals accuse those seeking to limit or stop the activities of the Legal Services Corporation of not caring about the needs of the poor and minorities desperate for legal assistance, but does LSC's track record justify its defense? Legal services attorneys appear more concerned with taking on clients who will help them implement out-of-the-mainstream policy objectives rather than help poor blacks in the inner-city make wills or settle disputes with their landlords. Until their sincerity to work for LSC's original mission is certain, reform is needed. Or maybe we should pull the plug altogether.
(Stuart Pigler is a member of Project 21's National Advisory Board and
the director of community development of the Michigan Association of Public
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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