Personal connections may have influenced how Justice Department officials allocated millions of dollars in grants last year, according to an independent government watchdog group.

Credit: Flickr User: El DestructoThe Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report yesterday detailing the Justice Department's apparent abuse of the Byrne Grant Program, the agency's highly touted effort to support local crime fighting nationwide.

POGO found that more than a dozen competitive 2007 Byrne grants were awarded without peer review, an optional but standard process whereby objective experts evaluate the merits of applications. Two of the winning agencies -- both from Ohio -- are closely connected to Justice Department officials who worked in the office that awards Byrne grants, according to the report, "Getting Byrned by Justice."   

"Taxpayers should not have to worry when they pay their taxes that some appointee will treat that money like candy they can hand out to their friends," said POGO's Executive Director, Danielle Brian.

A Justice Department spokesperson did not return several requests for comment.

Brian said 13 of the 228 grant recipients were not peer reviewed. Six of the 13 were holdovers from the earmarks system, including $100,000 for a McGruff the Crime Dog venture in Utah. The projects that escaped peer review-among them a $2.5 million methamphetamine demand reduction program--totaled nearly $15 million in taxpayer funds.

Brian also noted that the DOJ has not released the peer-reviewed projects' evaluations, thus making it impossible to know if experts deemed them worthy of funding.

POGO took its findings to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who last month sent the Justice Department a letter (pdf) demanding accountability for the agency's funding decisions.

"We are left with the impression that political favoritism, and maybe even total randomness, won out over good government," McCaskill wrote to Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Sedgwick.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, also rebuked the Justice Department in a letter to McCaskill.

Last year, Congress gave the DOJ about $150 million for the Byrne program, along with the discretion to choose where to spend it. This policy broke from Congress' previous tradition of allowing lawmakers to earmark the funds for favored groups.

Brian, of POGO, said the 2007 grant process provided a rare opportunity for competition and transparency.

"It's a good idea, only it's been hijacked," she said.

Along for the ride, the Ohio organizations are apparent beneficiaries of conflicts of interest within the DOJ, Brian said.

Before Domingo S. Herraiz became the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the DOJ agency that oversees Byrne grants, he headed the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services. Last year, the Ohio agency obtained $296,168 in Byrne funding for an anti-gang initiative, even though the project was not peer reviewed, according to DOJ documents that POGO obtained.

"That Herraiz was able to award a grant to his former employer, let alone circumvent the peer review process, raises the question of conflicts of interest in the Byrne Discretionary Grant program," the POGO report said.

Lindsay Komlanc, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public safety, said her office "has no knowledge of what, if any, Herraiz's role was" in awarding the Byrne grant. "We followed the standard application process," she said.

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio approached Herraiz about a school emergency notification system that needed funding.

"[Herraiz] told me it was a competitive grant and then we filled out the usual paperwork," said the Ohio police agency's treasurer, Mark Drum.

Sure enough, the police agency, which supported Herraiz's 2004 bid for the Justice Department position, received $603,000 in Byrne funds for the "Ohio School Alert System," another project that circumvented expert vetting. 

POGO also found that Cybele K. Daley -- a deputy in the Justice Department office that approved 2007 Byrne grants -- is married to James Pasco Jr., the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.

"I've never met Jim's wife," Drum said, "and I can assure you that Jim did nothing to get us that grant."

Daley, who did not immediately return a call requesting comment, recently left the Justice Department to become a Washington lobbyist. She represents law enforcement agencies and specializes in issues related to grant-making, according to her firm's Website.

With all the controversy surrounding competitive Byrne grants, Congress will return next year to the practice of allocating the funds through earmarks, according to Brian, of POGO.

POGO released its report the same day the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing to investigate whether another Justice Department division -- the Office of  Juvenile Justice -- has been ignoring peer review recommendations and steering taxpayer dollars to preferred groups.