Legal Services IG Criticizes Italian Marble at Anti-Poverty Office

Italian marbleLegal Services Corporation (LSC) hasn’t been known as of late for skimping on luxuries. And one expense in particular, an elevated three-story slab of white stone in Ft. Worth, Texas, might be a catalyst for instituting overdue cost controls at the nonprofit legal network whose annual budget is set to rise to more than $400 million from the current $390 million. On Monday, August 10, the LSC Office of the Inspector General released the results of its audit of the purchase of a slab of imported Italian stone costing $188,582 adorning the building occupied by an LSC grantee, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. The addition, part of a renovation project, has received continuous attention since its revelation two weeks ago. The original reported cost was $150,000, a figure representing the amount paid for out of funds on hand.

Architecturally, the slab is impressive, suggestive of a church, which in fact the building at one time had been. The trouble is that Legal Services Corporation and the 136 independent nonprofit groups it funds have a mission to serve low-income persons in civil suits whose legal bills might otherwise be prohibitive. The pursuit of luxury shouldn’t be on the list of priorities. In recent years, however, the organization’s in-house overseer, the Inspector General’s Office, has uncovered a variety of expenditures fit for a king. Inspector General Jeffrey Schanz, for one, thinks this downtown Ft. Worth building is an example of going overboard. “Making large expenditures for decorative items may result in fewer funds to provide legal services to clients,” he wrote. The stone “appears only to be decorative in nature” and does not constitute a “reasonable and necessary” expense.

Legal Services Corporation may or may not agree, but it’s willing to cooperate. “We will move as quickly as we can,” said LSC spokesman Stephen Barr. “The matter has been referred to our Office of Compliance and Enforcement, and they are going to make this a priority.” The local grantee, according to the IG, defended the purchase, pointing to its quality finish and the fact that the City of Ft. Worth’s downtown design standards requires the use of high-end materials in new and refurbished structures. “Reliance had to be placed on the experts,” wrote Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas CEO Errol Summerlin. One of the experts amplified this view. “Had we merely designed an ordinary brown box, I would dare say we would not have been allowed to move forward,” said Benjamin Smith, an architect with design contractor Multatech. “We decided that the design needed a material that served as not only an accent but a figurative beacon and portal to the present as well as a literal portal into the building.”

Yet that raises the issue of why Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas found it necessary to select that particular building for renovation, knowing the costs would be so much higher. The $188,582 price tag isn’t even the full figure under scrutiny in this case. LSC Inspector General Schanz has documented an additional $41,000 on contractors for which the local Legal Services program could not provide proper documentation. To ameliorate the situation, the IG is asking the grantee not to use tax dollars to pay for costs as part of its mortgage payments. The main Legal Services scandal – the costs that lawsuits impose on employers and taxpayers in the name of serving the poor – remains downplayed. For now, “Stonegate” might suffice as a good starting point for cost containment.