Saturday, July 10, 2010

CCA judicial education grants as much about patronage as pedagogy

After the Texas Tribune praised Judge Sharon Keller for grantmaking by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense while she was chair, yesterday I mentioned in reaction that "a little-discussed 2009 report from the state auditor lamented that the CCA 'lacks formal, written policies and procedures for awarding and administering grants.'"

In the comments, Charles Kuffner rightly noted the irony: "And of course, it was a lack of formal, written policies and procedures regarding last minute death penalty appeals that got Keller into official trouble in the first place. Funny how these things work, isn't it?" Indeed! If we're going to be giving CCA judges credit for grantmaking under their watch, they should also be held accountable for its more problematic aspects.

As Grits pointed out when the auditor's report was first published, an even bigger point of concern is how CCA grantees use money that's supposedly for judicial education to fund large portions of their groups' administrative costs, most prominently the prosecutors' association and the criminal defense bar. Here's a list of the grants given by the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008 and the percentage of the grants each group spent on administrative costs (from a table on pp. 8-9 of the pdf):
  • Center for American and International Law $ 299,696, 36.5%
  • Texas Association of Counties $489,220, 50.6%
  • Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association $1,098,670, 75.1%
  • Texas Center for the Judiciary $1,738,265, 41.7%
  • Texas District and County Attorneys Association $1,798,289, 47.8%
  • Texas Justice Court Training Center $1,931,037, 50.6%
  • Texas Municipal Courts Education Center $2,127,274, 44.7%
All of these administrative allocations are astonishing. Paying 50-75% of judicial education grants for administrative costs arguably merits the term "scandalous." By contrast, most private foundations allow 10-15% of grant funds to be used for administrative or overhead costs, and many don't let grantees use their funds for administration at all. Nonprofits must rely on individual donors or membership dues in addition to grants to keep their doors open because foundations are such sticklers about this.

The idea that the CCA grants $1.1 million to the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, ostensibly for judicial education, and $825,101 of it is going to "administration" means the CCA is basically paying for a big chunk of the group's primary day to day activities. The prosecutors' association gets an even larger sum for grant administration - $859,582 - but they get more money overall, so their administrative proportion is lower. On its face, it appears as though the administrative proportions are not attributable to a particular pot of costs but were simply allotted in such a way to give the prosecution and defense bar roughly equal amounts.

Little attention has been paid to this bizarre pork-barrel arrangement. By contrast, when the Governor's Criminal Justice Division gives out grants, there are more accountability mechanisms to ensure most of the money is actually spent on the tasks the grant is given for. But the purpose of these "judicial education" grants appears to be as much patronage as pedagogy.


Anonymous said...

Oddly when she gave money to that group in Hawaii called Daves Bar Association which is now called the Texas Independent Bar Association the overhead cost were mich lower. Gosh she even attended as did a few other judges. Ron Sutton attended this one as did the disgraced former Judge. Come to think of it why didn't the JCC look into this tie in as well.

Anonymous said...

I have nee never looked into this, but I wonder if it's a bean counting thing. What I mean is this: does spending CCA money on admin costs allow the TCDLA to then claim that a greater percentage of their members' dues go to more acceptable activity?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:54, of course it does. Any government subsidy that pays for basic functions lets them spend member dues on other stuff.

TCDLA and TDCAA have every incentive to accept the money if the CCA is willing to give it, but it's rather eyepopping to consider that 75% of a grant given for judicial education didn't go for that purpose. Those admin rates are FAR more generous than what's commonly allowed among other grantors. At a minimum it's evidence of lack of strict oversight by CCA. Perhaps more nefariously, though, it's potentially a way for the court to maintain significant behind-the-scenes influence with those groups. And since they have no written rules or procedures for the grants, it's all done in a rather clubby atmosphere with little outside scrutiny.

We often hear questions about whether it's ethical for judges to take contributions from lawyers who practice in front of them. This raises the opposite question of the ethics of judges giving out large pork-barrel stipends to influential lobby interests representing the lawyers who practice in front of them. Does that money influence those group's advocacy on policy topics? I'm sure they'd say "no," but it's hard to imagine they wouldn't think twice before taking stances that could jeopardize an $800K+ per year income source.

Anonymous said...

I would think that most of the expenditures for any group providing continuing legal education would be administrative expenditures since the "product" itself is the donated intellectual property of the various conference speakers.

The only non-administrative expenditures would be the costs reimbursed to the speakers (such as transportation, accomodations ....) or the cost of re-producing the material provided by the speaker.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:53, you're exactly right. What you're missing, though, is that kind of "administrative" support is unheard of among grantmakers. If it costs so little to put on continuing legal education, why give so many millions for it that don't go to that purpose? There's a fiduciary duty to the taxpayer that's being ignored.

Anonymous said...

Don't the administrative types who organize the CLE programs, arrange for the speakers to come, handle the registration for the attendees, negotiate fees for the venue, process the CLE credit with the State Bar, etc., deserve to be paid something? You think folks will just volunteer to do that stuff for free? I wonder how many training programs the state bar, the defense lawyer's association and the prosecutor's association put on annually? It's not like these organizations are doing medical research to cure cancer. Instead, the services they provide are, to a degree, intangible and incapable of precise valuation. Would you prefer the money be sent directly to lawyers or prosecutors to pay them to attend training, Grits? When the main objective of the grant is providing an educational experience to lawyers or judges, exactly how would you ever calculate the value of that? Without regard to whether the Court of Criminal Appeals should administer the grants, as opposed to, perhaps, the Office of Court Administration; I do think you should at least make sure you're comparing "apples to apples" when you criticize how the monies from these grants are expended.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:59, as I read the state auditor's report, the admin expenses are ON TOP OF the costs to pay staff to put on the trainings.

I disagree that comparing these to other types of grants isn't valid, and you offer no reason to believe so besides just saying it without adumbration. The grant pays to put on the trainings and an extra part goes to the organization sponsoring them for overhead, etc.. That's a common (but less so, and fading) arrangement among nonprofit and government grants with admin in the 10-15% range. At 50-75%, though, there's something notably wrong.

Anonymous said...

If i donated 100k to some charity, and 75k of it went to something other than the charity's stated mission, I'd be howling mad and looking for ways to take the extra money out of their asses. The fact that nobody is in this case means the players on both sides meant for it to go down like that, i.e. they're crooked as a dog's hind leg.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't TCDLA being investigated for questionable accounting/administrative practices using grant funding by the CCA just last year?