WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Justice Department anti-human trafficking grant program is facing internal complaints, after two nonprofits were denied funding in favor of two less established groups whose applications were not recommended by career DOJ officials.
The awarding of more than $1 million total to the two groups, Hookers for Jesus in Nevada and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation in South Carolina, has triggered a whistleblower complaint filed by the Justice Department’s employee union to the department’s Inspector General.
An internal department memo seen by Reuters shows that as of September 12, two long-established nonprofits – the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach and Chicanos Por La Causa of Phoenix – were originally on the list of recommended grant winners after receiving high marks from outside contractors hired to review applications. The annual grants help nonprofits and local governments aid human trafficking victims.
Later that month, those two organizations were replaced as recommended recipients by Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation, which both received lower rankings from the outside reviewers. The reason, a September 23 memo says, was an effort to “distribute funding across as many states as possible.”
The change was ultimately approved by Katharine Sullivan, head of the Office of Justice Programs, OJP, which awards the grants. Sullivan defended the process as proper. “Our funding decisions are based on a merit-based review system,” she said.
In December, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 2830 filed a complaint in which it asked the inspector general to investigate whether politics factored in the two grant awards. An inspector general’s office spokeswoman declined comment.
In a statement, union president Marilyn Moses said the grants call into question the department’s mission to serve the public. “Our employees take their … responsibility to the taxpayer very seriously,” she said.
This is the second time recently the union has challenged the grants review process.
Chicanos Por La Causa has opposed the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The head of Catholic Charities in Palm Beach has participated in past Democratic National Committees as a delegate or standing committee member. Both groups said they filed strong applications and intended to continue competing for grants.
Each, Reuters found, was ranked as a Tier 1 applicant, the highest level, after scrutiny by outside reviewers. Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation were ranked in Tier 2, one level lower.
To help select grant recipients, the Justice Department contracts with outside experts called “peer reviewers” who evaluate and score applicants. The reviewers’ identities were not listed next to their comments, so Reuters couldn’t contact them.
Career department officials then receive a blind copy of the average weighted scores and divide them into tiers, with the top scores being closer to 100. They review the applications, scores and reviewers’ comments to help inform their recommendations, which get the final sign-off from OJP leadership. DOJ staffers recommended the two Tier 1 groups.
The subsequent decision to bypass two higher-scoring groups in favor of those with lower scores deviates from past practices, said several Department of Justice veterans.
“Tier 1 generally is your default. They all get funded unless there is some kind of legitimate reason not to fund them,” said Jean Bruggeman, a former DOJ Office for the Victims of Crime fellow who is now executive director of the Freedom Network USA, a coalition aiding trafficking victims.
Hookers for Jesus, which received $530,190 over three years, is run by a born-again Christian trafficking survivor who has lobbied against decriminalizing prostitution, a policy position aligning with many in the Republican Party.
Hookers for Jesus operates a safe house for female adult trafficking victims that, in 2010 and in 2018, maintained a policy of requiring guests to participate in religious activities, internal program manuals obtained by Reuters through public records requests show.
The safe house’s manuals had rules that included a ban on reading “secular magazines with articles, pictures, etc. that portray worldly views/advice on living, sex, clothing, makeup tips.” Other rules limited everything from who victims could call to banning them from bringing their purses with them on weekly shopping trips. Rule-breakers could be penalized by being assigned chores such as washing windows.
Hookers for Jesus founder Annie Lobert denied that her organization requires safe house residents to attend services at her church. “We are not going to discriminate toward anyone,” she said. “But,” she added, “we are Christian. And there is an understanding before they come in here that we are Christian.”
If the policies described in the 2018 manuals continue after the federal grant money is dispersed, they would likely violate anti-discrimination laws that prohibit using federal funding to engage in explicitly religious activities, some lawyers said.
“The fact the federal government is funding this is problematic,” said Dallas Hammer, an attorney specializing in discrimination law. “The decision-makers here could be walking the federal government right into a clear violation of the First Amendment,” which protects freedom of religion.
Sullivan, the OJP’s principal deputy assistant attorney general, said the policies described to her by Reuters from the manuals are “inappropriate.” She added: “This might be something that may be appropriate for our civil rights department to look at. Those are not facts or things that we would know ahead of time.”
In its grant application, Hookers for Jesus did not discuss its religious focus in detail, and the department did not have access to its program manuals before the award was announced.
But Sullivan disputed the notion that Tier 2 scores are significantly inferior and said the department was justified in awarding the two grants because there were no other Tier 1-scored applications in Nevada or South Carolina for that grant category.
Geography is among factors that can be considered, but experts said it typically comes into play when deciding between two groups rated at the same level.
In 2019, OJP offices collectively awarded more than $100 million in grants to help human trafficking victims, with much of the funding to be paid out over three years. Of that, $53 million went to 77 groups, including Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation, that provide direct services to trafficking victims.
The Lincoln Tubman Foundation, awarded $549,345 over three years, was launched by the daughter of a prominent local Republican who supported President Donald Trump as a delegate at the 2016 convention and is close to South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott.
Its founder Brooke Burris told Reuters that services for adult trafficking victims in the Charleston area are severely lacking. She said the foundation will fund her Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force project to offer more direct services and train law enforcement to better spot victims.
“We have almost no resources,” she said, noting that South Carolina’s state laws did not outlaw human trafficking until 2012.
The need for more awareness was apparent during a recent training session her task force hosted with law enforcement: Few officers raised their hands when a former FBI agent asked if they had ever dealt with human trafficking.
In September, South Carolina’s Sen. Scott wrote a letter calling on OJP to do a “prompt review” of the application. A Scott spokesman said such letters are standard for grant requests and that he “didn’t endorse” the project.
OJP’s Sullivan said the grant review process was the same for all recipients and a letter from a senator “would not influence a funding decision.”
Reviewers cited the Lincoln Tubman Foundation’s lack of experience. The task force is still in its “infancy” with “little to no experience,” they wrote.
“I knew those were some of our weakest points,” Burris said. Formed in 2018, the foundation is headquartered in a mansion owned by her parents, but she said she is looking for new office space. Meantime, she said she has been fielding calls at all hours to help adult trafficking victims find hotels.
This is not the first time Hookers for Jesus has received federal grant money. In 2017, Nevada announced it was giving Lobert’s group nearly $300,000 through the federal Victims of Crime Act. In her grant application at the time, Lobert said church participation was voluntary.
The funding was not renewed in 2018 after the state obtained Hookers for Jesus program manuals saying it was “mandatory” for guests of the group’s shelter, Destiny House, to attend services and volunteer at a specific church. Its staff training manual said homosexuality is immoral and abusing drugs for pleasure is “witchcraft.” Reuters obtained the manuals through a public records request.
One Nevada grant reviewer in 2018 questioned whether Hookers for Jesus treated victims like “prisoners,” while another observed the program seemed too controlling and expressed concern it forced victims to attend Bible study, the grant review documents show.
“We felt their policies were not victim-focused or evidence based,” said Kelsey McCann-Navarro, whose office in Nevada’s Division of Child and Family Services decided not to renew the funding.
Lobert denied having policies requiring religious participation. She declined to provide Reuters a copy of her updated manuals. She added that she did not recall that the 2018 versions denounced homosexuality. “That is probably something we don’t have anymore,” she said.
Reviewers evaluating its 2019 federal application said Hookers for Jesus staff had little experience handling forms of human trafficking involving minors, men and foreign nationals.
In an interview, Lobert questioned the expertise of the reviewers. “I really caution when someone says they are an expert,” she said. Unless they run a safe house or have survived trafficking themselves, “they don’t have true expertise.”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Editing by Ronnie Greene