WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday appointed one of Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s former staffers to lead a Justice Department office at the heart of a recent whistleblower complaint over anti-human trafficking grants awarded in 2019.
The White House said Jessica Elizabeth Hart, who works in the Justice Department’s legislative affairs office, will run the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), part of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) which awarded $80 million in anti-human trafficking grants in 2019.
Of the total, a little more than $1 million was awarded over three years here to two groups whose applications were not recommended by career Justice Department officials: Hookers for Jesus in Nevada and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation in South Carolina.
Although the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach and Chicanos Por la Causa of Phoenix had been slated to win, after receiving high marks from outside contractors hired to review their applications, they were replaced by Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation, even though those two groups received lower scores.
The department’s employee’s union filed a whistleblower complaint with the inspector general amid concerns that politics – and not merit- factored into the awards.
Manuals obtained by Reuters showed that Hookers for Jesus as recently as 2018 had a policy of making church attendance “mandatory” for trafficking victims staying at its safe house, a requirement that legal experts said could run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
Annie Lobert, the founder of Hookers for Jesus, denied that participation in religious activities is mandatory.
The Lincoln Tubman Foundation was founded by the daughter of a prominent local Republican to fund victims services and train law enforcement about trafficking.
At the time the awards were announced, Darlene Hutchinson Biehl was the OVC director.
In December, she was reassigned to another post within OJP. She did not have any immediate comment on Thursday’s announcement.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Leslie Adler