Audit Uncovers Problems in Government Legal Aid Program
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A government program that pays for legal aid for the poor, a target of Republican budget cuts, overstated to Congress the number of cases it handled in 1997 by tens of thousands, audits and documents show.
One office reported eight times as many new cases as it should have.
The Legal Services Corp. says it has made significant changes in the way it counts the people it helps and as a result expects its 1998 total to drop by more than 200,000 cases. The tally of people who received free help is one of the criteria Congress considers when appropriating money for Legal Services, and Republicans, some of whom have tried to abolish the program, question whether they were misled. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, a longtime critic, called the overcounting "the grossest example of Washington bureaucrats abusing hard-earned taxpayer money." Legal Services reported serving 1.93 million clients in 1997. But a review of just five of the agency's 269 regional programs found officials had overstated their caseloads by 90,000. President John McKay acknowledges the 1997 count was "slightly off" and will be adjusted. He says the agency wasn't intentionally misleading and better counting methods have been implemented. As a result, the agency expects to report about 1.73 million cases for 1998. Officials said they didn't have enough information about the problem to alert Congress until just two months ago. Reports by Legal Services' inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog, and other documents obtained by The Associated Press provide a more detailed picture of the overcounting. Documents showed problems in at least five regional programs, including telephone calls from people who did not get legal help or were ineligible for assistance that were reported as new cases, cases that were double-counted and outdated cases that were counted. About 70 percent of nearly 73,000 closed cases recorded by regional programs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami and northern Virginia were not valid, officials found. For example, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego incorrectly reported more than 14,000 telephone calls as cases, an audit found. San Diego Executive Director Gregory Knoll said, however, that even if every caller doesn't receive legal advice, "every caller has their problem assessed." A group in Lakeland, Fla., serving rural areas, reported 44,993 new cases -- eight times the 5,500 valid cases it actually worked, officials said. …