An independent, quasi-corporation, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a creation of the federal government designed to fund legal aid offices throughout the country. The point of LSC is to help low-income people afford legal assistance in civil cases. It does this by distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to offices in US states and territories. In 2006 legal advocates accused the corporation of discriminatory behavior and other serious violations, prompting its inspector general to investigate, which uncovered even more bad news for LSC. In response, the corporation’s board tried to fire its inspector general.
In 1964, Congress adopted President Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act, which helped launch the War on Poverty
initiative. To implement this ambitious agenda of Johnson’s the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)
was created in 1965. OEO created 269 local legal services programs around the country, such as California Rural Legal Assistance
, to help poor people gain access to legal representation in civil lawsuits. These legal offices gained notoriety by helping to sue local officials, which produced a backlash among some in Washington, DC, especially Republicans.
When President Richard Nixon took over the White House, OEO’s days became numbered. The Nixon administration gradually cut funding for OEO programs, including legal aid for the poor. But supporters of the legal assistance program were determined not to see it dismantled entirely. In 1971, a bipartisan Congressional group that included Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Rep. William A. Steiger (R-WI) proposed creating a national, independent Legal Services Corporation. The idea was not immediately embraced, but three years later, with Nixon having resigned and Gerald Ford now president, LSC was born.
In July 1975, President Ford named the LSC’s first board, with Cornell University Law School Dean Roger Conant Cramton as its first chair.
During the Carter administration, a then-little known Democratic lawyer named Hilary Rodham was appointed to the LSC board by the president. Rodham, an attorney with Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, and wife of then-Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton, had a background in children’s law and policy and had worked on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign in Indiana. Rodham eventually rose to chair of LSC in 1978, becoming the first woman to do so. She successfully lobbied Congress to increase LSC’s budget, which reached $303 million in 1980.
But the high times would soon end with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. Reagan hated federal subsidies for legal aid, and while serving as governor of California, tried to block a grant to the California Rural Legal Assistance in 1970. Upon taking over as President of the United States, Reagan set out to eliminate LSC, one way or another. First, he tried to completely cut all funding to the non-profit corporation. Although Democrats managed to prevent this, Reagan officials were successful in dramatically cutting LSC’s budget, from $300 million down to $241 million. The President also used his powers of appointment to load up LSC’s board with individuals who were philosophically opposed to legal aid. For several years, Reagan went back and forth with Democrats in nominating numerous appointees who were either rejected or blocked from taking their seats. Reagan also used recess appointments to place, at least temporarily, his choices on the board.
During this period, it was revealed by government auditors that LSC had used some of its funding to legally battle Reagan’s efforts to weaken the corporation. The investigation was launched after some LSC officials ordered a series of “raids” on their own offices, which prompted one media source to characterize the corporation as being at war with itself
Hostilities between LSC and the White House ended with the election of George H. W. Bush, who did not view legal aid with the same contempt as Reagan. Funding for LSC gradually improved, up to $350 million in FY 1992. Things were even rosier when Bill Clinton took control of the Presidency, thanks to the First Lady. Funding reached a peak of $400 million in 1994 - the same year Republican seized control of Congress. With the ascension of the GOP, LSC was again targeted for cutbacks. This time its budget was slashed to $278 million. Also, new restrictions were placed on how LSC funds could be used in legal cases. For example, LSC-funded organizations could no longer serve as counsel in class action lawsuits or represent illegal immigrants.
Unlike previous Republican administrations, President George W. Bush has not tried to eliminate or downsize LSC. In fact, during the current administration, LSC’s board selected the first legal aid careerist to serve as president of the corporation.
An Organization at War with Itself
(by Michael S. Serrill, Time)
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a private, non-profit corporation established by the federal government to help low-income individuals gain access to civil legal assistance. A bipartisan, 11-member Board of Directors appointed by the President oversees all aspects of LSC operations. LSC’s primary job is to give grants to independent, local programs that provide legal aid. Grants are awarded through a competitive process, and generally, the size of the grant is based on the number of people living in poverty in a given state or service area.
LSC currently funds 138 local programs, serving every county and Congressional district in the nation. Using the public-private partnership model, LSC encourages its grantees to leverage federal funds to raise $346 million annually in other government and private revenue to help support their activities. In addition, LSC-funded programs maximize and promote pro bono service from private attorneys. LSC provides the education and structure that enable private attorneys to volunteer and serve clients effectively.
- Office of Program Performance designs and administers the competitive grants process and develops strategies to improve program quality. Program improvement efforts include identification of areas of weakness and follow-up for individual recipients, identification and sharing of innovations and “best practices” among recipients and others in the legal services delivery system, as well as broader strategies for improvement of the delivery system.
- Office of Legal Affairs serves as in-house counsel and chief legal advisor to the corporation and performs the duties of secretary of LSC. The general counsel carries out traditional lawyer functions, including negotiating, drafting and reviewing legal instruments such as contracts, settlement agreements, releases, applications for funding, and grant documents, and representing the corporation’s interests in litigation, directly or through retention and oversight of outside counsel. The office provides legal advice to the corporation’s board of directors and president, as well as to various LSC offices. The general counsel also interprets statutory requirements and drafts implementing regulations for consideration by the board.
- Office of Information Management gathers and disseminates information about LSC grantees and the delivery of legal services. This responsibility includes the development of Internet-based applications for obtaining information about the delivery of legal services by LSC grantees, the identification and collection of information about the civil legal needs of eligible clients, and the sharing of that information with LSC staff, grantee staff, and other interested parties.
- Office of Inspector General assists LSC leadership in identifying ways to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the activities and operations of the corporation and its grantees and prevents and detects fraud and abuse.
- Office of Compliance & Enforcement reviews recipient compliance with the LSC Act, regulations, instructions, guidelines and grant assurances.
- Office of Financial & Administrative Services is comprised of the Office of the Comptroller and the Administrative Services Division. The Office of Comptroller maintains the efficiency of LSC’s financial system and the integrity of its accounts, oversees procedures that generate all of the corporation’s financial transactions, and provides the most accurate and up-to-date accounting and financial information to LSC Board of Directors, the President and Office Directors. The Administrative Services Division provides day-to-day administrative support services for all of LSC’s offices.
- Office of the President is responsible for the implementation of board policy and oversight of the corporation’s operations.
- Office of Government Relations & Public Affairs is responsible for managing the corporation’s communications and requests for information from Congress, the Executive Branch, the media and the general public.
- Office of Human Resources develops and administers human resources policies, procedures, and strategies and provides advisory services to management and staff.
- Office of Information Technology develops, implements and maintains a networked computer environment featuring an integrated information system.
Three out of four clients of LSC-funded programs are women, and most of those are mothers with children. Other clients consist of elderly or disabled individuals, as well as some veterans. All of them turn to LSC-funded programs for help securing safe and habitable housing, protection from domestic violence, child support or health care. More than 50 million Americans are eligible to receive civil legal aid from LSC-funded programs, including 13 million children. Most are at or below 125% of the federal poverty level threshold, an income of approximately $25,000 a year for a family of four.
receives LSC funding and maintains one or more legal aid offices. In 2006, California received $40 million, Texas $26 million, New York $22.3 million, Florida $16.2 million and Illinois $10.8 million.
Through the Technology Initiative Grants (TIG)
program, LSC promotes full access and high-quality legal representation through the use of technology. Technology Initiative Grants are available only to LSC grantees. In 2007, LSC awarded 38 TIG grants in 25 states and the territory of Micronesia totaling more than $2.4 million ($2.1 million in TIG funding and an additional $321,000 in matching funds from the State Justice Institute to support TIG grants that emphasize and coordination with state courts). More than 60% of the 2007 TIG money was used to help pro se litigants - people who represent themselves in court proceedings - in nine states: Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New York, Ohio, Washington and West Virginia.
LSC provides details on TIG funding for the years
Legal Aid Centers Sue LSC over Restrictions
Since 1996, when Congress and President Bill Clinton adopted the landmark welfare reform plan, the Legal Services Corporation has placed severe restrictions how its funds can be used and extended these restrictions to private funds raised by legal services programs. In December 2001 four legal service programs in New York City, a private charity and pro bono attorney filed suit against LSC challenging the constitutionality of restrictions.
On December 20, 2004, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York struck down the restrictions on private funding of legal aid groups. But the judge denied the plaintiffs’ challenge to the restrictions on direct LSC funding. The case is still under consideration.
LSC Rocked by Numerous Allegations
In 2006, legal advocates sent a letter to the inspector general of the Legal Services Corporation asking for an investigation into numerous complaints regarding the spending and delivery of legal services by offices funded by the corporation. Complaints included:
- Filing false domestic violence claims.
- Scripting the statements for clients filing false claims of domestic violence in what amounts to subornation of perjury.
- Refusing to accept complaints of abuses committed by employees of LSC Grantees.
- Refusing to accept complaints of false claims made by employees and clients of LSC Grantees.
- Misrepresenting services.
- Retaliation against abuse victims for filing complaints against employees and clients of LSC Grantees.
- Blatant discrimination against males requesting service, including refusing services to men and charging male clients as much as eights times the rates charged to female clients.
The inspector general, Kirk West, opened an investigation and found LSC directors had spent excessively on extravagant meals and transportation. He also reported the corporation had overpaid by nearly $1.8 million on its 10-year lease at its new headquarters in an upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
In response to West’s findings, LSC’s board privately debated whether to fire the auditor. The corporation’s meeting transcripts showed that board members made disparaging remarks about West and discussed how to fire him.
After learning that the board was secretly discussing firing West, several US senators sent a letter warning the board’s chairman, Frank Strickland, that firing West, “would be an egregious action in light of the fact that Mr. West is investigating you.”
Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Response To Issues in CBS and AP News Stories
GAO: LSC Suffering Numerous Accounting Problems
In May 2008 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its review of LSC’s fiscal operations and its discovery of numerous problems. It found that LSC had not kept up with evolving reforms aimed at strengthening internal control over the organization’s financial reporting process and systems. Had LSC done so, it might have prevented recent incidents of excess payments, questionable expenditures and potential conflicts of interest. In addition, LSC had not kept up with current management practices, including those involving risk assessment, internal control and financial reporting. Furthermore, the corporation had not formally assessed the risks to the safeguarding of its assets and maintaining the effectiveness and efficiency of its operations. GAO also found weaknesses in LSC’s internal controls over grants management and oversight of grantees that negatively affected LSC’s ability to provide assurance that grant funds were being used for their intended purposes in compliance with federal laws and regulations.
GAO made a total of nine recommendations to LSC’s Board of Directors and eight to LSC management. These recommendations dealt with fundamental management and governance practices. Both LSC’s board and management expressed a commitment to move to implement the recommendations.
LSC’s most recent progress report indicated that LSC was starting to take action to address many of the recommendations and was planning to take action on the remaining ones.
GAO: Improvements Needed in Governance, Accountability, and Grants Management and Oversight at Legal Services Corporation (PDF)
Annual Budget: $350.4 milion
Legal Services Corporation