WASHINGTON – Those $70 lunches and $14 "Death By Chocolate" desserts are gone from the executive menu at the government's legal aid program for the poor. Expensive hotels, limousine services and first-class travel will become rare or disappear, too.
The Associated Press highlighted in a series of stories in August and September how the program's executives spent freely while many poor Americans -- in need of legal help -- were being turned away at clinics across the country because the program lacks sufficient money.
Among the costs that got lawmakers and the inspector general steamed: Corporate directors and top officials received $18 breakfast servings and $13 "high tea" services in ritzy hotels. Directors shunned the agency's own spacious conference room for an upscale hotel a few minutes away.
Legal Services is financed with tax dollars but given special status as an independent federal corporation, meaning it did not have to follow government-wide expense guidelines.
After the outcry over its spending, the program decided to reign itself in by voluntarily imposing the same expense limits as federal workers.
The changes are outlined in a series of internal corporation memos, provided by the LSC to AP, and in an exchange of letters between corporation officials and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.
"It looks like the Legal Services Corporation learned its lesson," Grassley said in a statement. "I hope $14 cookies and limo rides around town are a thing of the past."
Board chairman Frank Strickland, an Atlanta attorney, said in a letter to the lawmakers that the corporation board and top management have embraced the changes.
LSC's chief administrative officer Charles Jeffress wrote in one memo, "During board meetings, only beverages will be provided ... no food will be provided for snack breaks."
"Reasonably priced restaurants will be selected for board dinners," and guests of board members will be expected to pay, he explained.
Corporation inspector general Kirt West, the agency's internal watchdog, reported that lunch at the January 2006 board of directors meeting in Washington cost $70 per person, while afternoon snack breaks cost as much as $27 per person.
In addition, board members who dined together -- rather than alone -- while attending meetings were allowed to double their meal allowances. That policy has been dropped.
The corporation board usually has four meetings a year, including one in Washington each January. The January 2007 meeting has been moved to the conference room in corporation headquarters, a policy that the inspector general concluded could save thousands of dollars.
While corporation officials told the auditor that headquarters conference facilities were too small for board meetings, West said the headquarters' most spacious conference room was slightly larger than the hotel conference rooms used in the past.
Jeffress said use of limousine services will be curtailed. "It's not going to be a common occurrence," he said.
LSC President Helaine Barnett, board chairman Strickland and another board member have used limousine services.
Strickland last April used a car and driver to take him and Barnett to meetings on Capitol Hill with lawmakers -- about a 15-minute ride from headquarters.
The chauffeured ride, which cost $423, also took them to Arlington National Cemetery for a funeral and to a separate memorial service, also in Arlington -- all short rides and accessible by taxi.
Barnett, the corporation president, used a hired car and driver to attend a funeral service for a former board member in Harrisburg, Pa., about a two-hour drive. The cost: $400.
In a memo on travel policy, Jeffress wrote that first-class travel must follow restrictive government rules.
The government allows first-class tickets under circumstances that include a lack of available coach seats; accommodations for disabilities; security needs; meeting urgent timetables; and flights outside the country that exceed 14 hours.
Barnett flew first class to a conference in Ireland, at a cost the inspector general called unnecessary and excessive.
Jeffress, in another memo, said the corporation adopted government hotel rate guidelines, which allow waivers only under limited circumstances, including escalated rates due to special events or natural disasters.