Panels Querying Ethics of Grant For U.S. School-Safety Center
Members of Congress are investigating the circumstances surrounding the Justice Department's award of $3.95 million to a California university to establish a National School Safety Center.
The proposal for such a center has been a key element in the Reagan Administration's widely publicized plan to improve discipline in the schools.
The Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee and the staff of Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio and ranking minority member of the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are looking into the propriety of the noncompetitive grant made on March 15 to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
They are also examining the possibility that political patronage was involved in the naming of the center's director, a long-time professional and personal associate of Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese 3rd.
In addition, the staff of the House subcommittee is investigating reports that a 19-page memorandum written by a high-ranking Justice Department official urges the Reagan Administration to use calls for safer schools as a means of weakening civil-rights regulations.
The Justice Department declined last week to make the memorandum available. But staffers of the House subcommittee say they have spoken to sources who have read it. Those sources say the memorandum's author, Roger B. Clegg, assistant attorney general for legal policy, argues in the document that the Administration should seek to amend Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in ways that would make it more difficult for individuals to sue school officials and all other public officials for civil-rights violations.
In general, Section 1983 makes public officials legally liable for such violations. According to the House panel's sources, Mr. Clegg in his memorandum calls for the section to be amended to reduce the number of circumstances in which it can be used to sue public officials and to shift the burden of proof in such cases from the public officials being sued to the plaintiff.
The investigations in both the Senate and the House are "ongoing" and do not have specific timetables, according to the staffers conducting them.
Questions about the propriety of the grant for the school-safety center focus on the center's director, George Nicholson, a former colleague of Mr. Meese's in the Alameda County, Calif., district attorney's office during the 1960's.
According to Mr. Nicholson, the two have remained friends since then. Mr. Meese campaigned on behalf of Mr. Nicholson in 1982, when Mr. Nicholson was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for the office of attorney general in California, Mr. Nicholson said.
Several California Roles
From 1979 to 1983, Mr. Nicholson was a deputy to George Deukmejian, who at that time was California's attorney general. In 1980, as part of his work for Mr. Deukmejian, he established a school-safety center in the state that the national center has been patterned after.
Before assuming his role as head of the new federally sponsored center on April 15, Mr. Nicholson worked on planning and research projects for Mr. Deukmejian, who is now the state's governor.
Last year, Mr. Deukmejian submitted Mr. Nicholson's name to the California State Bar Association for possible appointment to the Sacramento Superior Court. But the Governor apparently chose not to make the appointment after the state bar rated Mr. Nicholson unqualified for the position.
Alfred S. Regnery, the head of the Justice Department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention and the Administration official in charge of the school-safety project, said he chose Mr. Nicholson to be the director of the new center several months ago, on the basis of his work with the California school-safety center and a meeting he held with Mr. Nicholson in Los Angeles last November.
Choice of Pepperdine
Mr. Regnery, who was an aide to Senator Paul Laxalt, Republican of Nevada, before joining the Reagan Administration, said he then asked Mr. Nicholson to locate a college or university willing to apply for a grant to establish a national center.
Mr. Nicholson said he recommended Pepperdine University because it was a private institution in a major metropolitan area, it had graduate programs in law and education, it sought only modest overhead payments, and its administration expressed a willingness to make a substantial commitment to promoting the work of the new center.
According to Patti L. Yomantas, a Pepperdine spokesman, officials at the 6,500-student university knew nothing about the new national school-safety center until Mr. Nicholson telephoned the president's office about the grant late last year.
Ms. Yomantas said Pepperdine, which she described as a liberal-arts school with a strong Christian heritage and many conservatives among its "friends," has a policy of not soliciting federal funds and had not done so in the past. She also said the university does not offer a course of study in juvenile justice.
She said, however, that Pepperdine has operated similar centers in other fields and that several members of its faculty, especially those in education, have done research on school discipline and related issues.
With Mr. Nicholson's recommendation in hand, he then invited Pepperdine to seek the grant, Mr. Regnery said.
The university did so, enlisting Mr. Nicholson, officials in Mr. Regnery's office, and others to help draft its proposal, which sought $4.2 million over two years. A grant of $3.95 million was awarded to the university in mid-March; the university then officially appointed Mr. Nicholson director of the center, which opened on April 16.
Mr. Regnery said he chose not to hold a competition to select the sponsor of the new center, which is intended to act as an information clearinghouse for school officials and youth authorities on school violence and discipline issues, because "there wasn't any need to."
"The cost factor was very good, the proposal involved people as good as could be found anywhere else, it fit into our sole-source [contract] guidelines, and it saved a lot of time," he said.
According to Justice Department lawyers, the policy governing the office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention calls for competitive bidding for grants "to the maximum extent possible." However, there are no regulations requiring that grants be made through competition, the lawyers said.
Representative Ike Andrews, a Democrat of North Carolina who, as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee's Human Resources Subcommittee, is investigating the school-safety-center award, has attacked Mr. Regnery's decision to award Pepperdine a noncompetitive grant.
"Without a competition," there is no way of telling if taxpayers are getting a good deal for their money," said an aide to Mr. Andrews.
"There certainly is circumstantial evidence of political favoritism in the awarding of the grant, and the best way to avoid such charges is to hold a competition," the aide said.
According to Marion Mattingly, who has followed juvenile-justice issues for many years and who was a member of the Reagan Administration transition team's law-enforcement task force: "A number of other institutions are as qualified as Pepperdine is to sponsor a school-safety center."
The Education and Labor Committee recently passed HR 4971, "the juvenile justice, runaway youth, and missing children's amendments of 1984," which includes language stipulating that all future grants awarded by Mr. Regnery's office must be made through an open competition. The bill is awaiting consideration by the full House.
Congressional investigators have also questioned other aspects of the Pepperdine grant.
They note that the center's main office is located in an office building in Sacramento, some 300 miles from the Pepperdine campus.
Ms. Yomantis said Pepperdine selected Sacramento as the center's headquarters because many on the staff of the California School-Safety Center, who were expected to leave their positions there to become the nucleus of the staff of the national center, live in the capital. The California center, a statewide clearinghouse for school-safety information, is said by experts to be the only one of its kind in the nation.
Mr. Nicholson said he accepted the directorship of the center with the stipulation that it be located in Sacramento, where he also lives.
Mr. Nicholson will be paid $65,000 a year as director, according to Ms. Yomantas. That is nearly $20,000 more than Mr. Nicholson said he was paid by Governor Deukmejian. But it is $10,000 less than was called for in Pepperdine's proposal to the Justice Department, a copy of the document indicates.
Meese Role Denied
In an interview last week, Mr. Nicholson denied that Mr. Meese played a role in his appointment as director of the school-safety center.
"Sure, we're friends, but I've never consulted with him on this issue," he said. "He has played no role in it whatsoever. Keep in mind that I was asked to get involved with the center. I'm a victim of circumstances, to put it mildly. Nothing improper is being done."
He added that he has "never been active in political affairs."
Mr. Regnery, of the Justice Department, said it is "total nonsense" to suggest that Mr. Meese played a role in Mr. Nicholson's appointment. "I never discussed it with him; he had absolutely nothing to do with it," the official said.
However, James Wootton, Mr. Regnery's deputy, told the Los Angeles Daily Journal that their office called Mr. Meese in the early stages of the grant process because they were aware there was a relationship between the two men "in Republican political matters."
He told the Journal that the call was made as a courtesy and that "it is absolutely untrue that Meese influenced the choice."
House investigators are also looking into suggestions that Mr. Meese might have influenced the decision to award the grant to Pepperdine.
But Ms. Yomantas said, "Ed3Meese is a friend of Pepperdine, and he has donated a $1,000 or more in each of the last few years, but there has been absolutely no input at all from him about the center or the selection of Mr. Nicholson."
A spokesman for Mr. Meese said that he was "absolutely not" involved in any aspect of the establishment of the safety center at Pepperdine.
On the subject of the memorandum written by Mr. Clegg, Mr. Regnery said the Justice Department is considering proposing changes to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would grant teachers and school officials greater immunity from legal action by students.
But he said he could not remember whether the memorandum urged that such immunity be extended to a broader range of public officials. He noted that the establishment of the school-safety center was unrelated to the department's review of Section 1983.
According to Mr. Nicholson, recruitment of the center's staff of 30 to 40, which will include educators, law-enforcement officials, and lawyers, is halfway completed.
Once in full operation, in June, the center will undertake several projects, Mr. Nicholson said.
The center, he said, will publish and distribute widely a range of information on effective programs for reducing vandalism, crime, and dropout rates; provide advice on school-safety issues through a network of toll-free telephone numbers; and bring educators, law-enforcement officials, and representatives of the business community together at a conference in Texas and at another in New York to share ideas on the issues.
The staff will also develop a computerized resource bank, edit and promote a book on school law, and sponsor a multi-media advertising campaign on school-safety topics in 1985.
"We want to promote a ground swell of thought on the issue of school safety," Mr. Nicholson said.