A Justice Department official appointed by President Donald Trump let partisan political considerations infect a federal grant-awarding process, according to a complaint to the DOJ inspector general.
The complaint name-checks Office for Victims of Crime Director Darlene Hutchinson Biehl, a former Montgomery, Alabama lifestyle writer and longtime crime victims advocate.
The complaint accuses Hutchinson Biehl of announcing her intention to search through potential outside consultants’ social media accounts for evidence of their political views before deciding whether to take them on, according to a person familiar with the filing.
OVC relies on outside peer reviewers to help examine potential recipients of federal grants that it doles out. Hutchinson Biehl is accused of trying to select peer reviewers based on whether they support Trump’s immigration policy or whether they are in favor of legalizing prostitution.
Reuters first reported the complaint’s existence on Wednesday.
Career DOJ employees submitted the complaint to the inspector general Aug 16 via their union local in DC, a unit of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
“It has always been that peer reviewers were selected upon expertise and not upon political views,” AFSCME Local 2830 president Marilyn Moses told TPM. “We’ve asked for an investigation to find out whether or not [these allegations] are true and, second, whether she acted upon these things.”
Between six and eight employees approached the union with the allegations, Moses said, starting in early July.
The problem began after Hutchinson Biehl convened a meeting with a group of staffers where the office’s grant-awarding process was discussed.
At the meeting, Hutchinson Biehl allegedly announced to employees that she would start looking through prospective peer reviewers’ social media profiles for evidence that they dissented from Trump’s immigration policy or supported legalizing sex work.
The OVC employees were so rattled by the encounter, Moses recalled, that they went to a career management staffer for clarification on Hutchinson Biehl’s comments. That staffer allegedly reiterated what Hutchinson Biehl – who took office in August 2017 – had said, leading them to begin speaking with the union.
The complaint would appear to mirror a similar scandal that occurred under the Bush Administration at a sister office of OVC – the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), also under the umbrella of DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs.
Then, a 2009 Inspector General report found that a political appointee directed grants to organizations that had been lowly rated in peer review based on “political considerations” and not merit.
“There is no law or regulation requiring peer review results to be the sole determinant of grant awards,” the report reads. “Yet, because OJP and OJJDP devote considerable resources to conduct peer reviews of grant proposals, our audit concluded that OJP and OJJDP should ensure that the peer review process is transparent and a significant factor in making award decisions.”
Hutchinson Biehl did not reply to an emailed request for comment.