Union President: Time for Listenbee to Go, OJJDP Has Spiraled Out of Control

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Robert Listenbee

David Kindler

Robert Listenbee

WASHINGTON — The head of the union representing employees at the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has called for the resignation of OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee Jr., saying the agency has “spiraled out of control” and morale has plummeted under his leadership.

“I just don’t see how Mr. Listenbee can legitimately lead OJJDP forward through the crisis that his employees are currently facing,” said Marilyn Moses, president of Local 2830 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “I think that so many things have happened that it’s just spiraled out of control,” she told JJIE in an exclusive interview.

Moses said she had conducted extensive interviews with about 20 OJJDP bargaining unit employees — about half the unionized workers at the agency (there are some 70 employees of OJJDP)  — since last summer. The interviews, she said, revealed a climate of fear of retaliation for dissent and a lack of a clear vision from Listenbee and his top aides.

Juvenile justice advocates as well as OJJDP staffers had hailed President Barack Obama’s appointment of Listenbee in early 2013, saying the longtime Philadelphia juvenile defense attorney and juvenile justice reformer would improve morale and bring direction to the agency.

Before Listenbee took over in March 2013, the agency had been beset by low morale and a lack of effective leadership, employees said.

Moses and a current longtime OJJDP employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, told JJIE morale has sunk much lower than it was under former OJJDP Administrator Robert Flores. Flores resigned in 2009 after 6½ years at the helm amid a scandal over awarding discretionary grants. Morale during the administration of Flores, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, had been exceedingly low, staffers say.

“They had high hopes for [Listenbee] when he came on board,” Moses said. "Now they have been bitterly disappointed."

The OJJDP employee agreed: “Overall morale is worse than I’ve seen it,  ever. …  I was there during the Flores time, and morale was terrible and what we thought was there’s no way that it could be worse than that. We just couldn’t imagine that it could have gotten worse. And it’s far worse, far worse.”

Moses said morale among unionized employees had been further eroded when many learned this month of an investigation into whistleblower allegations that OJJDP had paid millions of dollars in grant money to states that allegedly should not have received the money because they incarcerated juveniles with adults in violation of federal law. The inquiry was authorized by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Moses said the Grassley inquiry has led to concerns about whether the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which created OJJDP, would be reauthorized for the first time since 2002. (The law lapsed in 2007, and juvenile justice advocates say it needs major overhaul.)

“I don’t think anyone other than people in the [OJJDP] compliance division knew what was going on, and now they have fears about the reauthorization, they have fears about future funding, they have fears about the future of the agency —  which are all legitimate fears,” Moses said.

“And it underlines how ‘siloed’ and excluded all of those employees were since no one knew that all this was going on other than those in the compliance division, and the other employees were floored.”

Moses’ call for Listenbee’s resignation follows a Jan.15 letter she wrote to his boss, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who took over the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in the Department of Justice in April 2013.

In the letter, Moses urged Mason to bring in an outside management consultant to review the union’s findings and recommend “whether Mr. Listenbee’s resignation would be in the best interest of the organization” or if the consultant could “craft a strength-based path forward.”

The letter to Mason, accompanied by 40 pages of notes from interviews with OJJDP employees, said the report from the outside consultant should be made available to OJJDP employees.

In a statement Monday night, OJP (of which OJJDP is a part) said: "The Office of Justice Programs takes very seriously the need to look into any complaints by employees regarding the conduct or performance of senior leadership. We are working with AFSCME Local 2830 to address concerns the union received from employees of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Any validated concerns will be appropriately and expediently resolved."

Moses said she began looking into complaints from unionized OJJDP members in June after many of them contacted her and told of infighting among the agency’s top staff that included yelling, doors slamming and papers being thrown.

At the time, Moses said, she believed it was a “redeemable situation” and contacted Mason. Moses said Monday that Mason had not responded to her complaints in the summer or to the Jan. 15 letter.

The union chief pointed to what she portrayed as a lack of trust between rank-and-file members and Listenbee and his top deputies.

Moses and the long-time OJJDP employee said Listenbee speaks often about his vision and says that he was appointed to be a “change agent” but has not made clear what his vision is or what he hopes to change and how.

They also said he’s intolerant of dissent, talks over people when they disagree with him and frequently says he must be right because he’s a presidential appointee.

“There’s a total disconnect in his communications style with employees,” Moses said. “Also, one of the things I learned from interviewing the employees in the bargaining unit was that there seems to be a total mistrust on both sides. They communicated to me over and over again that they do not feel that Listenbee trusts them and does not call upon them for input, and that they feel that they’re not trusted to do their  jobs, not allowed to do their jobs.

“And on the flip side, there is no trust from employees in him and his administration. … and I just don’t know given all the events that have transpired in the past two years, how that history can be mended.”

The longtime OJJDP staffer said some employees in the agency had been there almost since its establishment in 1974, adding: “And they are just like, ‘We’re done. No matter how much our commitment is to children, we just can’t do this anymore. We just can’t for our health, mental health and lots of our families. We just can’t do it anymore.’”

Listenbee came to the agency with a reputation as an effective juvenile justice reformer.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative honored him in 2011 with a Champion for Change award for his leadership in reforming the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania.

Listenbee, the first African-American to head OJJDP, earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

He served for 27 years as a trial lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, including 16 years as chief of the association’s juvenile unit. He also co-chaired the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, which issued its final report in December 2012.

Several Washington-based juvenile justice advocates declined to comment Monday on Moses’ demand for Listenbee’s resignation. And former OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik, now director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University in Washington, could not be reached Monday.

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