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The Specter initiative.

The Specter Initiative

It was a $48 million government initiative. Its chief proponent in Congress wanted to demonstrate once and for all that, despite the dismal record of America's prison systems, criminals in fact could be rehabilitated. The money--all of it--went to the District of Columbia. That much we know. Exactly where it ended up is a mystery, the ending yet to be written by the United States Justice Department.

The story begins in 1983 with Senator Arlen Specter. The Pennsylvania Republican wanted to spend $100 billion to rehabilitate salvageable lives now lost in America's prisons. One hundred billion dollars is an enormous sum. It's five times what NASA spent over the 10 years of the Apollo program that took man to the moon. It's equal to the budget of a government agency called the United States Air Force. So Specter's idea was not easy to sell in 1983, while Reagan and the Congress were liquidating national assets to minimize already record deficits. But Specter seemed determined to have his way. And as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, which helps control the District's large federal payment, he had the clout to make a start.

What could make a Republican senator (and a former district attorney to boot) want to spend $100 billion on the kind of crime measure usually preceded by the word "coddling?" Bold programs tend to attract the kind of publicity to which Specter's career has demonstrated he is not averse. A graduate of Yale law school, the former prosecutor from Philadelphia had served for eight years until voters turned him out in 1974. But he had learned to enjoy public life, and in the years that followed he sought statewide office three times before winning a United States Senate seat in 1980. Specter's first chairmanship was the Juvenile Justice subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. From that perch, he held hearings on, of all things, Joseph Mengele, Hitler's so-called "Angel of Death." His hearings entitled, "Pornography and its Effect on Women and Children," which ran from August to November of 1984, brought porn stars to the Senate and headlines to Specter.

Whatever the motives for Specter's ideas on rehabilitation, his aide on the Appropriations Committee, Tim Leeth, tried to make them a reality. Leeth says he doesn't remember, but the General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that in July 1983 he placed a call to the D.C. Department of Corrections (DCDC). He spoke to William D. Golightly, a career administrator at DCDC, then in charge of Administrative Services. The GAO says Leeth raised the possibility of a special appropriation for prison education.

Golightly called back a few weeks later to say that DCDC did in fact need an extra $750,000 for that purpose. Leeth said that the Appropriations Committee was considering a much larger sum. Golightly called back to say the department had reexamined its requirements, and--whaddya know?--discovered it could use $8 million to "substantially expand" its prison education program.

But Golightly and others at DCDC were not ready for what came next: A few weeks later, Specter dwarfed DCDC's wildest dreams by reporting out an appropriation of $22 million with a promise of more to come--$48 million in all--for teachers, classrooms, books, equipment, and job placement counselors. By November 1983, with only four months to plan, the spigot opened and the unexpected money began to flow into a bureaucracy woefully incapable of handling it.

Two years later, in 1985, Specter explained his actions:

"I have urged, as you know, that there be a national commitment for $10 billion a year for 10 years to deal with this problem of violent crime....As chairman of this subcommittee, I have tried to add funds to Washington, D.C., which, on a pro-rata basis, would be the equivalent of that kind of a massive federal attack, and if we are able to show success here...we can show a track record on results."

Like most of what we know about the program, the quote is from a document, in this case the transcript of a three-year-old subcommittee hearing. Nowadays, the senator uncharacteristically shies away from interviews on this subject. So do several key participants in the program. Why? Perhaps because the hopeful program that proudly came to bear his name, the "Specter Initiative," produced a "track record" of little more than waste and incompetence, providing a classic illustration of how a bureaucracy responds when Congress tries to get it to do too much too fast.

Tumbling down

Of the $48 million, $12 million went to the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) to build seven new prison school buildings by October 1985. None were finished on time, three were finished late, and to this day four are not finished at all.

According to a report by the GAO, the project ground to a halt when the new foundations didn't match the architectural plans. DPW had originally planned to pay the architects to oversee the construction, then it decided to supervise the construction itself. That might have saved the taxpayers the $45,000 originally allotted for the supervision. However, the one full-time city inspector assigned to the seven projects, reports the GAO, was absent when much of the work was done. The contractor who laid the foundations tried to correct the problem at one site by laying a good foundation on top of the bad one. But the combined weight was too great for the soil, and the whole mess had to be pulverized and hauled away.

More than three years after the original design contracts were awarded, DPW had spent more than half of its $12 million for the project without finishing any of the seven buildings. Another $4.3 million will be needed to finish them, according to the District's 1988 budget. GAO concluded that congressional pressure was partly to blame for the calamity since it resulted in inadequate planning time. But GAO also blamed DPW for "inadequate oversight" and for a procurement system crafted less for efficiency and competition than to protect non-white contractors, D.C. residents, handicapped citizens, and workers who are non-white or female.

According to a senior official at GAO, Gene Dodaro, the agency originally planned to look at the whole Specter Initiative. But when auditors finished in October 1987, their report dealt only with the $12-million construction debacle at DPW. They did not audit DCDC, which spent the lion's share of the money. (DPW had been responsible only for capital construction, but DCDC spent the money Congress allotted to operate the program.) GAO did not audit the larger expenditure because it says auditors found evidence of criminal wrongdoing. They turned their findings over to then-U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova. Neither the auditors nor the federal prosecutors will describe the evidence they say they found. But sources familiar with the investigation in the early stages cite examples of theft; one mentioned payroll fraud.

Until 1982, the D.C. prisons were the responsibility of Delbert Jackson. Over the years, this black administrator became highly regarded by many of the assistants he picked, many of whom still hold influential DCDC positions today. After Jackson's death from a heart attack in 1982, Mayor Marion Barry appointed an outsider, Barry's long-time friend James F. Palmer, to head the agency. Seven months later, the Specter money started flowing.

Palmer, 59, is a tall, gray-haired, black man who lives with his wife in southeast Washington. He'd spent 24 years in the U.S. Marshals Service but had no direct experience in prison administration. Friction is common between career civil servants and newly appointed bosses from the outside. But Palmer's management style came under unusually harsh attacks from a number of quarters.

"Palmer didn't trust anyone," says Chuck Lindsay, a career administrator who is now retired and who also is black. "He was paranoid....It wasn't just me....He couldn't trust anyone. Staff meetings were a joke. They always ended with someone being threatened and Palmer warning everyone that he was the mayor's best friend." Similar assessments were offered by other long-time corrections officials who are reluctant to speak openly because they still work there. Palmer declined to be interviewed.

Peggy Nolan was a leader of the Washington Correctional Foundation, a group of mostly white dogooders who wanted to contribute time and/or money to the city's rehabilitation programs. "Palmer saw all these white faces, and he got scared," she says. "We wanted to help, but he came to think of us as an enemy."

Palmer's style of management did more than simply alienate. His obsessive secrecy left his staff unable to find him one night in 1986 after a riot at the Lorton penitentiary had ended with a shotgun fusillade that wounded 13 inmates. According to the The Washington Post, "Palmer had spent much of the day attending a retreat for city officials and another meeting at the convention center. He was informed by subordinates that afternoon that tear gas had been used to try to disperse the inmate demonstrators, he said, but he did not believe that a major disturbance had occured that would require his presence.

"Palmer, invoking confidentiality in what he said was a personnel matter, declined to discuss his whereabouts later that night, when subordinates said they were trying to reach him. But he insisted that he was wearing his pager."

The Palmers that be

Such was the state of DCDC's leadership when the Specter windfall began.

Palmer's first appointment to head the Specter Initiative was Patricia Taylor, one of those who'd worked under former director Jackson. But she didn't last long. She says Palmer and the mayor's office wanted her to give a large sole-source contract to a woman named Elizabeth Abramowitz who ran a small psychological consulting firm. Abramowitz is the sister-in-law of Ron Dellums, a California congressman who is chairman of the House District Committee and a man with enormous influence over the District.

Taylor says she rejected Abramowitz's proposal because it was pointless gibberish. (The proposal I saw touted things like the firm's "Knowledge of Washington, D.C. and predisposing factors contributing to being known to the courts.") Taylor says that the contract was designed to circumvent the bureaucracy's complex purchasing and civil service requirements. Abramowitz declined to comment.

Taylor says her orders to approve the contract came from City Administrator Tom Downs, Mayor Barry's chief of staff. Downs says he was only encouraging Taylor to expedite matters, and the idea of using Abramowitz came from Specter himself. "At some point along the way Sen. Specter strongly suggested that we use these kinds of people," Downs says. "Every dime of our budget comes from that subcommittee. So when he talked, we listened." Again, Specter has declined comment.

The woman who replaced Taylor was Margaret Labat, who was then a D.C. public school official in charge of adult education. It's difficult to determine who actually chose Labat, because no one claims the dubious honor. City administrator Downs says mayor's office had little to do with it: "That was Palmer's idea. He had known Dr. Labat for 35 years. I think they went to public school together." Palmer won't say if that's true. And Labat declines to say anything about the program.

Hubert Robinson, who later worked for an advisory committee monitoring the program on behalf of the Appropriations Committee, says the decision was made in a roundabout way be then-school superintendent Floretta McKenzie. "[Labat] had been put in a meaningless job more or less to keep her out of the way. But she was still one royal pain in the ass to McKenzie. So when Barry asked about someone for the new corrections job, McKenzie gave Labat a glowing recommendation just to get rid of her." McKenzie won't comment. (On March 21 of this year, after extensive interviews with both Nolan and Robinson, the two wrote me a joint letter, cautioning me not to "attribute any libelous remarks relative to anyone involved in the Initiative to either one of us. We repeatedly told you that neither of us had any evidence of corruption whatsoever." But they did not specifically disavow any of the statements quoted in this article.)

However Labat may have been chosen, there is little dispute that she faced a formidable task--to create at nine different correctional facilities, a huge model program in prison education, complete with curriculums, faculty, administration, supplies, classrooms, and students. What's more, Specter wanted quick results, according to The Washington Post, which wrote that Specter had put DCDC "officials on notice...that he expects to see concrete results within months." That was four months before Labat even assumed formal control. She had too much money and too little time to spend it.

Chris St. John, a former analyst for D.C. Information Resources Management Administration (IRMA), says Labat showed him a plan to buy Apple computers from a vendor not on an approved list. He estimated her plan would cost the city an extra $100,000. When he told her her plan was illegal, he says she threatened to use her influence with Specter to get him fired. St. John says he took the problem to Hal Williams, then in Mayor Barry's office. As St. John recalls, Williams said he'd take care of it, but a few weeks later the sale went through, just as Labat had wanted. Williams won't comment, but city administrator Downs defends William's action, saying IRMA is just an "advisory" agency. Williams, who is Downs' former assistant, is now director of DCDC.

In addition several critics say Labat hired dozens of incompetent and unneeded teachers. "The teachers didn't know their subjects," Nolan says. "The inmates were on a fourth-grade reading level. She chose texts they couldn't read. She ordered $350,000 in graphics arts supplies. She didn't even have a graphics arts instructor. The materials just sat there unused." Nolan and others said Labat submitted a staffing authority request for 29 new teachers at one prison, Occaquan III, when the closest thing to a classroom there was a small trailer barely big enough for three people. Nolan says, "It was ludicrous! Her explanation was, `It's good to have them on board.'"

Lindsay says, "Department of Corrections had never gotten a windfall like that. I think they panicked and they brought in the Labat regime where they were spending money for the sake of spending money. At one point we found computers, typewriters stored everywhere. It was a farce. That's how it ended up, a total farce." Labat declined to comment.

The 32 percent solution

The contract with Elizabeth Abramowitz became a multi-million-dollar channel through which DCDC paid for everthing from office equipment to salaries for teachers and principals. This according to Abramowitz's invoices. If the Specter Initiative needed a file cabinet, Abramowitz's firm bought it and billed DCDC for it. Almost 100 Specter Initiative teachers received their paychecks from Abramowitz's firm. The number varied from month to month.

According to her proposal and the bills she sent the city, her fee equalled 32 percent of the goods and services she bought. In other words, if the Specter Initiative needed a $100 file cabinet, Abramowitz's firm would write the $100 check to the supplier, then bill the city $132. The same for airline tickets, consultants' fees, hotel bills, and a host of other goods and services. If a teacher was paid $100 by Abramowitz, the city paid Abramowitz $132.

Not only was Abramowitz's firm allowed a 32 percent mark-up on the expenses run through it, but the city also paid at least part of the salaries of Abramowitz's own employees. And that included $7,800 a year for an "accounts receivable contract manager." In other words, the city not only paid Abramowitz a 32-percent markup but it also paid to have its bill prepared. I was unable to obtain all the invoices, but the ones I have show that at least $2.6 million was paid to Abramowitz for goods and services that originally cost only $2 million.

Invoices show the contract also was used to pay Labat and some of her top people a "salary differential" over and above their regular pay from DCDC. Abramowitz charged 32 percent of this amount too. The differential was approved both by DCDC director Palmer and by Mayor Barry's office. The upshot was that city officials were being paid by a contractor under their supervision. In Labat's case, the approved salary differential started out at about $100/week in 1984 and grew to $600/week in 1985. Also, in May 1984, Abramowitz paid Labat $4,700. And a few days before Christmas, 1985, Labat collected $39,481 from Abramowitz.

According to the invoices, Palmer, the head of corrections, used the Abramowitz contract to spend Specter Initiative funds on a 10-day trip to California. A May 24, 1984 letter from Elizabeth Abramowitz's husband, Michael, addressed, "To Whom It May Concern," authorized Palmer to use Michael's American Express card for 10 days beginning May 27, 1984. It allowed Palmer to pay for two hotel rooms and for rental cars, first in San Francisco, then Lake Tahoe, then San Diego. Subsequently, on August 8, 1984, Abramowitz billed DCDC for $2,600 for "Travel/Transportation" for James Palmer. DCDC sources say Palmer was accompanied by a female assistant. Lindsay says Palmer never filed a report explaining the purpose of the trip. Asked about the trip, Palmer did not answer directly, saying only that, "Anything I did about the Specter Initiative was legal and approved." The woman who reportedly accompanied him still works for DCDC. She did not return phone calls.

Labat and Abramowitz both refused to answer any of my questions about their public service during those years. Mayor Barry, on the other hand, ordered at least some of the public documents which DCDC had failed to produce be released to me. Palmer's only comment is the one mentioned above. Dellums also declined to discuss Abramowitz.

Nearly all the problems of the Specter Initiative developed while Specter's subcommittee supposedly was watching its progress closely. Several high officials say they fed documents to Nolan of the corrections foundation, who said she told Specter that he faced a potentially serious embarrassment.

In June 1984, Specter asked former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste to head a special advisory committee on a pro-bono basis.

Three months after Ben-Veniste accepted the assignment, he hired Hubert Robinson, an old friend and retired officer of the Federal Probation Service, to be his liaison to the DCDC. "I went in to talk to Labat and Palmer," says Robinson, who like Labat and Palmer, is black. "I was willing to bend over backwards to be of help. I said, `Listen, this is a great program. I'm not here to hurt you people. I'm here to help.' They were saying everyone was spying on them and sabotaging them. There was a racial thing. `The whites are out to get us.' Palmer especially had problems with that kind of paranoia. I told him so. After that interview, they avoided me like the plague.

`They refused to take my advice. So I passed my information on to Richard. Richard said, `We don't want to get in politics. We don't want to get into a position where the D.C. government is saying that we are trying to dictate how to run the department.'" Robinson says he told Ben-Veniste in detail about program failures and about the efforts to conceal them. "I told him, `Richard, the program is going down the drain. Down the drain!'" The minutes of the advisory group's meeting on October 25, 1985, during which Ben-Veniste directed some pointed questions at Labat, demonstrates that the group was aware that the Specter Initiative had problems. In fact, most of the classrooms were almost empty. One administrator at Central Facility says a secret audit was conducted over several weeks and could not find any class, not even the most popular, with more than seven inmates in attendance.

But such facts were not reaching the public. Quite the contrary, testimony solicited by Specter from high city officials, as well as reports published directly by the city, described a Specter Initiative that was heading for success. For example, in 1984, the year Labat took over, DCDC's official annual report listed "student enrollment" and inmate "population" in separate tables. By comparing them, it appears that of the 511 inmates in Maximum Security, 514 were enrolled in class. The numbers sound like election results in Haiti. Of the 1,171 inmates in Central Facility, 1,457 supposedly were enrolled in education programs. And it gets worse. Of the 244 women in jail, 327 were in class.

To conceal the absence of students from visiting VIPs like Mrs. George Bush, program officials staged classes using volunteers from the prison yard by offering special dinners from the culinary school in exchange for posing as regular students, according to an inmate. Patricia Taylor says spare male teachers (of which there were many) doffed their coats and ties to be cast as interested students.

The near absence of real students held advantages for the teachers in the program. At one end of the spectrum were those who were grateful for the chance to work with only two or three really interested inmates. At the other end teachers tell of one colleague who spent much of his time sleeping because he did not have the necessary equipment to teach his course in small appliance repair.

On June 6, 1985, the city administrator Tom Downs, with Labat at his side, testified that the percentage of those passing the General Education Development (GED) test had risen from 52 percent to 73 percent in 1985. Alex Hyman is the D.C. public school official who administers GED tests for DCDC. He was not called to testify. But if he had been, he would have told the committee that the passing rate for 1984 was only 63 percent, roughly the same as it's been for many years.

In the same June 6, 1985 hearing, Ben-Veniste told the committee: "In the year or so that I have been involved in the program we have seen, I think, a steady curve that has not always been as sharpwardly [sic] upward as we might like, but I think we are in good shape now." And in what today sounds almost funny, city administrator Downs told Specter, "We recognize now that without your insistence, without your enthusiasm, and in many cases, your demanding support for this program, we would not be where we are today in the District."

Six months later, on December 5, 1985, the appropriations subcommittee met again to review the progress of the Specter Initiative. This was two years after the money began to flow, 18 months after Ben-Veniste had joined the advisory committee. Mayor Barry testified that the Specter Initiative was a proud success:

"Before we started the program, we had about 863 inmates who had some exposure to educational programs within the prison...Since this program has started, we have touched 3,398 persons, some more intensively than others.

"One indicator of the program's success is the GED passing rate. We were at 64 percent in March, 1984, and I am happy to report in October 1985 the GED passing rate was 83 percent. To date, 644 persons have taken that examination and 415 have obtained passing scores."

It's doubtful His Honor could pass the GED test himself, if this is his idea of division. The way I was taught, 415 divided by 644 is only 64 percent. But that may not matter because Hyman's records show that even if you combined totals for both years (1984 and 1985) since the Specter Initiative had gotten underway, you would have only 500 inmates taking the test and only 331 passing. That's a passing rate of 66 percent. And Hyman says it didn't change much from year to year anyway.

Following Barry, Ben-Veniste testified. Afterward, Specter thanked him, saying, "I am glad to have that very positive assessment on your part, Mr. Ben-Veniste, in terms of a very careful analysis which you and your committee have made." In closing remarks, Barry said: "I think when we finish these programs and look at them, it will be a guide to prison systems around the nation." When problems were mentioned they were phrased in a way that was definitely not calculated to cause alarm. For example, Ben-Veniste--who in the first segment of his testimony had said that there was room for "substantial improvements" with "pre-release counseling," "an integrated program of potential job identification" and other problems--ended the hearing with these words: "I do not want to leave any misimpression in terms of the substantial progress that this program has made. I think we have seen a period of learning by all who have been involved in this program from the administration side as to the problems and challenges presented by prison education and vocational training. And I think at this point we are really on the threshold of getting a program implemented which will indeed be a model."

But later that day, the public got a hint of the behind-the-scenes drama when Mayor Barry told Arthur Brisbane of The Washington Post that Margaret Labat, "is on her way out by mutual agreement." A few months later in February, 1986, the Federal Bureau of Prisons loaned Gwen Sizer Washington to DCDC to take over Labat's position. But by then, the vast majority of the $48 million was gone.

Today the Specter Initiative is over. It was coming to an end by the end of 1986. That was the year Congress passed the last federal payment, $7 million. In December 1986, Mayor Barry announced that Hallem Williams, 39, former assistant to Thomas Downs, would replace retiring director Palmer as head of DCDC.

The GAO's announcement that its investigation had been turned over to the U.S. Attorney came in December 1987. On that occasion, Specter released a terse statement:

"It is very discouraging to see the District government fail to make proper use of federal funds for an important pilot project for prisoner education and rehabilitation. It may be that the Congress ought to have a GAO study on all the funds which we make available to the District to determine what safeguards should be built into the system to see that federally appropriated monies are properly used."

Recently, I filed written requests to DCDC for access to records showing how Specter funds had been spent. DCDC gave me what were represented to be the most complete records available. They account for less than $4 million of the $36 million that went through DCDC.

The sad irony is that when Barry and Ben-Veniste presented their testimony to the subcommittee on December 5, 1985, they spoke the truth. They said the Specter Initiative would be a "guide to prison systems around the nation." Indeed, it will be a guide--of what not to do.
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Title Annotation:Scams, Hustles, and Boondoggles; Arlen Specter
Author:Gourley, Jay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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