Outlaws At The OEO
What can Congress do when a government official purposefully and systematically breaks the law, as acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Howard J. Phillips, is doing with White House approval?
Ideologically fueled by hatred for government programs to Americans who are poor and helpless, Phillips is pursuing the dismantling or subversion of OEO’s legal services program and other OEO activities undeterred by a chorus of objections and charges of illegality from prominent law firms, OEO employees, and both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Under the smokescreen of taking politics out of the legal services program and returning control to locally-elected officials, Phillips and his crony-consultants are using every bureaucratic means to restrict and harass the legal services lawyers. This is being done pursuant to turning over the programs to local reactionary lawyers and politicians.
The law and proper procedures are pushed aside with fierce determination. Phillips had hardly gotten into his job on January 31, 1973, when he violated his agency’s own regulatory procedures designed to protect legal services grant recipients around the country. These rules included: (1) 30 days public notice before any changes in grant procedures; (2) notice to grantees of when they will receive funds held up by processing delays; and (3) notice of intent to terminate with reasons and continued funding until opportunity for hearings on termination: When House Education and Labor Committee members raised these questions before Phillips on February 27th, he had no answer and lamely passed the questions to his counsel who embarrassingly tried to gloss over these oversights.
Now Phillips has retrenched by pursuing the same purpose of undermining legal services through political action and restrictions from his Washington office. Rather than uniformly cutting off funds or not renewing grants; he is placing restrictions on these programs which suppress thorough legal representation of the poor and turn the local board of directors to his ideological allies.
This is precisely what has occurred with the effective Indianapolis Legal Services program. Ignoring the recommendations of local officials, including the Mayor’s office, as well as reports by local and federal evaluators, Phillips cut a fifth of the program’s funding, imposed seven “special conditions” on the program (including a restriction on using the federal courts) and turned control of the program over to its most vociferous local enemies.
The Indianapolis situation shows that Phillips is not concerned with giving local officials more of a say. He is concerned with turning legal services over to its outspoken enemies by edict and continuing controls from Washington–at least until the entire national legal services program can be permanently scuttled. The young oligarchs now running OEO also want to destroy the national “back-u P centers.” These centers, which are affiliated with universities, conduct research into poverty law relating to consumer, housing, health and other areas and respond to information requests by legal services attorneys.
In turn, these attorneys have served millions of Americans and pioneered in the courts. They have won lawsuits against local and state lawlessness and commercial exploitation of the rights of consumers, tenants and workers. It is the stopping of this modest strengthening of the poor against the powerful that Phillips has directed his policies of illegality, deliberate bureaucratic snares, hostility and arbitrary dismissals of OEO employees who would uphold the law.
As acting director of OEO, Phillips’ name has not been sent by the President to the Senate for confirmation, as required by law. He will now have to defend the charge in court by a group of Senators seeking to remove him that he is holding his very office illegally. The President has not yet replied to the request by Senator Harrison A. Williams, chairman of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, of February 23, 1973, asking when the nomination of Mr. Phillips would be forthcoming as required. The Senator and several of his colleagues on the Committee assert that federal law has been violated and that Phillips should be removed from the position until confirmed by the Senate.
Thus far, Phillips has refused to meet with major poverty group representatives or consider the serious complaints of legal services attorneys. But the initiatives to bring his bureaucratic crimes to justice are mounting and will not be deterred by his blatant repudiation of lawful government.