The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Legal Services Nonprofit Wastes Tax Dollars

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Free legal help is getting more expensive for taxpayers and much of the money is going to waste.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which received $330.8 million in fiscal 2006, distributes money to 138 local nonprofit legal aid organizations across the country to help provide free legal services for the indigent.  However, the Associated Press reported in September that audits from the group’s internal inspector general, “Kirt” West, identified questionable spending practices among LSC board members.

According to West, “Our review found spending practices that may appear excessive and inappropriate to LSC’s status as a federally funded, non-profit corporation, particularly in light of its mission in distributing taxpayer dollars to fund legal services for the poor.”

The reports noted the LSC may be overpaying on its plush K Street headquarters by as much as $1.8 million on rent and $7 million on unneeded space in its 10-year lease. 

On top of that, board members do not even use their own office for meetings in Washington, D.C.  The board meets at the luxurious Melrose Hotel, within several blocks of the headquarters, because the board wants “convenience to their rooms” and doesn’t want to “feel confined.”  They also claim that the LSC space is too small to accommodate all attendees.  However, West says the headquarters’ meeting room is slightly larger than the room used at hotel. 

Meal charges at the hotel have included a $59 three entrée buffet, $28 deli buffet, and $14 “Death by Chocolate” desserts – extravagances that LSC clients could only dream about.  This was after board members voted to raise their own meal allowance by 200 percent compared to staff employees.

The board’s refusal to meet at LSC headquarters has meant charges from $20,145 to $55,125 in locales from Washington, D.C. to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Other questionable expenditures and activities included:

  • $200 for a taxi ride in Ireland;
  • $423.99 for brief trips around Washington, D.C. by hiring a chauffer and car for a day instead of taking cabs;
  • Improperly approved taxpayer-financed expenses for outside activities; and
  • First and business class upgrades on airfare without the required advance approval.

While board members are living the high life, the LSC has reported turning away half of its underprivileged applicants for lack of resources.  The Government Accountability Office has caught the LSC inflating the number of cases it works in the past, so the number may be either higher or lower. 

In April, with examples of unseemly behavior piling up, board members met (over meals costing $8,726) to discuss firing the inspector general.  When members of Congress got wind of the board’s plans, they sent a letter to the board’s chairman warning them not to shoot the messenger.  Later, at congressional hearings concerning the LSC audits, the board denied wanting to fire West, but transcripts of the meeting proved otherwise, further reducing the board’s credibility.

The LSC is no stranger to controversy.  In the past, LSC grantees have challenged abortion restrictions, defended illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes, sued states to pay for sex-change operations, and fought to give alcoholics and drug addicts Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.  Grantees have also engaged in political advocacy, against the orders of Congress. 

Hopefully, instead of “Death by Chocolate,” the Legal Services Corp. will finally succumb to “death by Congress.”

  -- Alexa Moutevelis

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