Capitol Offenses

Stonewalling the Victims

In May of this year, Lupe Vargas was beaten by her husband. Pregnant, broke, and with three kids to feed, Vargas (not her real name) left her home in fear for her life. She cashed one of her children’s Social Security checks to pay the deposit on an apartment. Her check for the first month’s rent bounced, but the landlord took pity on her and let her stay. After she gave birth in early July, a social worker at the hospital advised her to apply for a relatively new program, administered by the Attorney General’s office. The program provides relocation money — including moving expenses and rent — for battered women, up to a total of $3,800 per applicant. In emergencies, like that of Vargas (who is still unable to pay her rent), the program is designed to provide a rapid response. Lupe faxed in her application from the hospital in mid-July. Two weeks later, with an eviction looming, not only had she received no money, she had yet to hear a word from the agency.

Lupe Vargas’s case is not an isolated example of the failure of the relocation program, which is administered by the Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program. According to several sources in the women’s advocacy community, relocation money has never flowed through the program at the levels intended. But in recent months, the payments to women desperately in need of help has slowed to a trickle. “It used to be I could get an emergency check in seventy-two hours,” said one Austin-area women’s advocate, who requested anonymity. “Now the whole attitude has changed. Women have been told that there is no money for relocation. Advocates have been stonewalled or given the runaround.”

According to current and former employees of the Crime Victims Compensation Program, the recent meltdown is a symptom of wider management problems within the twenty-year old division, which assists victims of crime with a variety of expenses, from hospital bills to funeral costs, and even provides lost wages to eligible victims. Morale is low, they say. As is efficiency: at one point this summer a backlog of over 1,200 unprocessed applications for assistance had accumulated.

Once widely recognized for its efficiency, advocates say the program began to suffer after Republican Attorney General John Cornyn was sworn into office some eighteen months ago, and its troubles were exacerbated by a shakeup in division organization last spring. Critics of the program claim that to cover a spike in overhead costs — including a substantial raise for a new director of the program — services and payments to the victims the program was designed to serve have been cut back.

Assistant Attorney General Andy Taylor, John Cornyn’s chief lieutenant, conceded that the program as a whole seemed to be in trouble when he examined it this spring. “We were making some initial projections and we were doing such an aggressive and good job in getting the moneys out to the needy crime victims that it looked like we might actually reach the level that the Legislature had authorized earlier in the year, rather than later.” In other words, the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, which administers the relocation assistance and other grant programs, was in danger of running out of money.

But was the shortfall, as Taylor suggests, due to overzealous service to crime victims? Was the agency being victimized by its own efficiency? Documents obtained under the Open Records Act and interviews with agency officials suggest otherwise. Money for the program is drawn from a dedicated fund, which by law can be spent only on compensation to crime victims and the administration of the compensation program. The target given to the agency by the Legislature for fiscal year 2000 for all distributions to crime victims (including relocation assistance) was about $41.3 million. According to agency records, as of June 23, the program was on pace to hit that distribution total. But overhead and administrative expenses were much higher than they should have been. By June 23, according to agency records, the program had only dispensed $33.2 million directly to victims of crime, but had already expended a total of $40.22 million from the dedicated fund. The total amount appropriated by the Legislature for the fiscal year for the entire program — distributions and administration combined — was only $43.9 million. The program was on pace to spend $49 million by August 31, the end of the fiscal year.

Did Taylor or Cornyn — rather than come hat in hand to the Legislature to ask for an emergency appropriation — give the order to slow the flow of money to victims? In April, the agency distributed nearly $3.8 million, the highest monthly total of the year to date. In May, that fell to $3.51 million, and then to $3.15 million in June. More telling are the numbers for the relocation assistance program. In May of 1999, when the bill creating the new program was being finalized, the Attorney General’s office projected that $3.4 million in relocation money would be distributed in fiscal year 2000 (according to the fiscal note attached to the bill). As of June 23 — with just ten weeks left in the fiscal year — the program had distributed only $679,000 to victims. That seems awfully low to Representative Pete Gallego, the Alpine Democrat who sponsored the bill. “I know the victims’ groups were very excited about it, and the members of the Legislature were very excited about it, and I would have hoped the staff people at the A.G.’s office would have been just as excited about the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Gallego. Adding insult to injury, one advocate noted, is the unprecedented $1.9 million in Crime Victims Compensation “excess funds” that the A.G.’s office will send this biennium to batterer’s intervention programs — that is, therapy for abusive husbands and boyfriends — administered by the Department of Criminal Justice. Thus, as of late summer, the agency is on pace to spend as much, if not more, this fiscal year, on treating battering men as it will on relocating battered women.

The disbursement of relocation money to women started off slowly, gradually rose, and then began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year — from a yearly high of $108,000 in April, down to $63,000 in May and again in June. Had the relocation program distributed funds at the level the Legislature and the A.G.’s office intended ($3.4 million), the program would have exceeded its distribution target for fiscal year 2000 by several million dollars. Coming back to the Legislature to ask for more money after having done their job too well would have been well-received, according to Gallego. “I have never seen the Lege say no to victims of crime,” he said. Coming back with a tale of fiscal mismanagement — i.e., too much overhead and not enough service delivery — is another story.

Andy Taylor denies that money has been withheld from victims in an attempt to keep the program in the black. The results of a recently completed internal audit (which has yet to be made public), he now says, show that the program will not run out of money by the end of the fiscal year. There will be no emergency appropriation and no borrowing against the next fiscal year to get through the current one. “My perception is that we’re expeditiously getting the funds out in the amounts and on time within the parameters that the Legislature has set.” The backlog of 1,280 applications waiting to be processed, which the agency admitted to on June 23, was completely cleared by July 25, he said. And throughout the fiscal year the program has consistently met its legislatively mandated target of one hundred days’ turnaround time for each application, according to Taylor. (At least one former employee interviewed for this story claims that performance measure is deceptive, since the clock doesn’t start on the one hundred days until the application — which may have been sitting untouched for weeks — is entered into the computer. A spokesperson for the agency denies this.)

Taylor blames the backlog, as well as the slow pace of implementing the relocation grant program, on the early February departure of the former C.V.C. Program Director Anita Drummond. “Just like any organization, when you lose a division chief and bring in a new person there’s gonna be some legitimate and expected get-up-to-speed time for the new individual,” Taylor said. Following Drummond’s departure, several programs, including the C.V.C., were consolidated into one Crime Victim Services Division under the direction of a new director, Dr. Brian Ogawa. Ogawa, who formerly headed the four-person staff of the Crime Victims’ Institute at the A.G.’s office, is a Church of Christ minister and therapist (his doctorate is in theology), and something of a star in the new age of victimology. When Ogawa was promoted, his salary was raised to $90,000, or roughly the same as General Cornyn’s. A program director was later hired to head the C.V.C. program itself. The director, who reports directly to Ogawa, earns $83,000 per year.

According to Taylor, Ogawa and his top staffers have spent considerable time and energy over the past year traveling the state to collect a “database” of information from victims’ advocates and criminal justice officials, in an effort to refine the rules of the relocation grant program (as well as other agency policies and procedures). Yet fourteen months after the Legislature created and funded the relocation program, there is still no official policy and procedure for its implementation, according to the agency. This is the primary reason, Taylor says, that so little money has been distributed through the program. But according to one source in the women’s advocacy community, Anita Drummond all but completed that process before she left office. Drummond convened a group of advocates last summer, says the source (who participated in the process), and a draft set of rules was produced for review by Cornyn’s director of Criminal Justice, Shane Phelps (who has since left the agency to again run for District Attorney in Travis County). In response to the Observer’s open records request — after denying that any draft policy was ever produced, the agency eventually turned over a document. Dated August 30, 1999 and labeled “Policy & Procedure — Payment of Relocation Expenses,” it outlines procedures for implementation of the new program. For reasons that remain unclear, the rules were never finalized and entered into the Texas Register, as required by law. “Bureaucratic excuses don’t go very far with me,” said Gallego. “The program was designed to get money out to people who need it. And we need not be sitting on money at the state level when there are people out there with need, and the Legislature has made a policy determination that that need is significant.”

Regardless of the rationale, delaying full implementation of the relocation grant has considerably improved the Program’s bottom line for fiscal year 2000, and forestalled the need to go to the Legislature for an emergency appropriation. According to Capitol insiders, the pressure to avoid asking for more money is much higher in this presidential year. Word has gone out among the Governor’s appointees in the various bureaus, as well as among other Republican elected officials, that Governor Bush’s budget surplus is to be protected.

But at what cost? “They have balanced their budget on the backs of battered women,” said a former C.V.C. staffer, who quit when Ogawa took over. “I’ve never had an agency testify that they have enough money” (as the A.G.’s office did before the Appropriations Criminal Justice Subcommittee in late July), said Gallego, who sits on the subcommittee. “You know the presidential politics is probably a bigger factor. Nobody wants to embarrass the Governor. And I’m not gonna quarrel with that at all, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be helping people in need.”

Embarrassing tales of fiscal mismanagement, needless to say, are particularly unwelcome at this juncture. Yet there are management problems at the Program, and the word is circulating that, under pressure from the advocacy community, General Cornyn is leaning toward major changes in the division. Andy Taylor did not say precisely how the Program eliminated its application backlog in such a short period of time, but the rapid turnaround suggests that C.V.C. staff administrators might have been called in for a “Come to Jesus” talk with Taylor. Taylor says he merely “explained to them that we need to make sure that we continue to stay within the legislative performance standards for turnaround time.”

If heads are in fact going to roll, the top head on the totem poll is Ogawa’s. Taylor would not confirm rumors that Ogawa will be replaced or demoted, nor would he concede that the Program has been mismanaged. Asked to evaluate Ogawa’s performance, and the efficacy of the division reorganization of last spring, Taylor praised Ogawa’s intellect and academic experience, but concluded: “What is important is that in addition to the academic experience, you need to have the management skills and capabilities to run a shop well and on time.” The audit, Taylor said, “looked at those issues and wanted to make sure that we have the right people in place. All I can really say is that there may well be some changes, but it’s too early for me to tell you the extent of those changes. But there will be some real positive, good things happening in the next couple of weeks.”

For Lupe Vargas, “real positive, good things” would include a phone call from someone at the agency. “I have worked hard all my life and paid a lot in taxes,” said Vargas. “And now, when I need help in an emergency, the reality is that this program doesn’t work.”

The High Cost of Therapy


In February of this year, Attorney General John Cornyn consolidated the agency’s various crime victim divisions, including the Crime Victims’ Institute, the Training and Victim Assistance Program, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Crisis Services Program, and the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, into one Crime Victim Services Division, and named Dr. Brian Ogawa the new division chief. A Church of Christ minister with a doctorate in theology, Ogawa is considered an expert in the field of victim studies, having spent twenty-five years teaching, speaking, and writing about crime victimization and other topics, including cross-cultural counseling, child abuse, family violence, and sexual assault. He directed the National Academy of Victim Studies at the University of North Texas, and he has consulted or served on several national projects, including the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women. But he had limited management experience when Cornyn named him chief of the new division, which has three dozen employees. Cornyn’s predecessor, Dan Morales, originally hired Ogawa to head the Crime Victims’ Institute, a small, four-person division of the A.G.’s office. Ogawa spent two years producing an exhaustive survey of crime victims in Texas. Originally hired part-time at a salary of $52,506, Ogawa’s salary had increased to $75,936 by August of 1999.

Ogawa’s salary jumped to $90, 264 with the promotion to division chief. (For comparison, Cornyn himself makes roughly $92,000.) Andy Taylor defended Ogawa’s considerable salary. “In order to attract qualified people to do a good job … that costs money. If it takes ninety [thousand] to get somebody, it takes ninety to get somebody.” And, as Taylor pointed out, Ogawa is a “nationally recognized star.” On the lecture circuit, Ogawa is perhaps best known as an advocate of Morita Therapy, an Eastern psychotherapeutic method named after one of Japan’s first psychologists. His published articles (which endorse Morita for a variety of applications, from treating physical abuse to stress management) invoke Eastern concepts (“E
otions are like the ever-changing Japanese sky”) in the service of a therapeutic regimen that seems almost retrograde. In his book Walking on Eggshells, Ogawa outlines a program of therapy for battered women based on the Morita method, which includes “absolute bed rest, daily work, journal writing, and resocialization.” Despite his New Age credentials, some in the victims’ advocacy community have bristled at Ogawa’s management style. One of his first changes was to make the division’s offices in Austin off-limits to advocates.

Ogawa’s increased responsibilities at the AG’s office do not seem to have put a dent in his speaking career. He has traveled extensively on state business (expending $23,166.76 in his short career with the state), while also doing a brisk business as a featured speaker at conferences, where his ideas on victimology are much in demand. He spoke on Morita Therapy most recently at the Border Issues Conference on Sexual Assault in El Paso in April. In such cases, his expenses are ordinarily paid by the conference host, but the conferences have taken Ogawa around the state, and the country, at a time when many have argued that the division itself was in need of some therapy – as well as some fiscal austerity.

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Published at 12:00 am CST