The most memorable line since Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" has just come out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Ta da: "I'm not trying to get anyone off the hook here."
That telling quote comes from George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS's Administration for Children and Families. Sheldon offered his defense to Washington Post writer Jerry Markon for a front page story on Nov. 1.
Markon's story investigated how the grant process at HHS was manipulated to keep an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from receiving an award to serve victims of human trafficking. USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) had scored high enough to be awarded a federal grant to continue its very successful anti-trafficking program. But the decision was "overturned," so to speak, when Sharon Parrott, a top adviser to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, stepped in to "have a dialogue" (her words) in the process because the award would go through a Catholic agency. Their problem? The Catholic Church -- though providing food, shelter and legal and other medical services for trafficking victims more effectively than any other -- is forbidden by conscience from referring those victims for abortion, sterilization or contraceptives. So much for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal legislation that protects conscience, not to mention ordinary fair-play in picking grant recipients.
According to the first version of Markon's article, which appeared on the Washington Post website on Oct. 31, the decision caused controversy within HHS. The article stated that "HHS policies spell out that career officials usually oversee grant competitions and select the winners, giving priority consideration the review board's judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved, through current and former employees said it is unusual, especially for high-level officials."
Sheldon, who in the spirit of political loyalty apparently was willing to fall on his paperclip for higher-ups, told Markon: "I don't think there was any undue influence exerted to make this grant go one way or the other." He added, "Ultimately I felt it was my responsibility -- and I'm not trying to get anyone off the hook here -- to do what I thought was in the best interest of these victims."
Surely Sharon Parrott, who according to the HHS website is one of three counselors to Secretary Sebelius and advises on human services policy, and Secretary Sebelius herself must be grateful for such fealty as they promote abortion politics over real care for trafficking victims. They opted for far weaker agencies, according to the grant scoring process, and awarded grants to USCRI and Tapestri, which "scored significantly below" MRS, the Post reported. And Sheldon wants us to believe this is "in the best interests of the victims"? Now that is loyalty!
Such political interference could irk career people at HHS who know what they are doing and want to avoid the political mire. Their concerns were reported to the Inspector General, according to the Post.
The original story on the web, which was later scrubbed of some quotes for whatever reason, was even more telling than what appeared in print.
Said the original online version (still available on Yahoo here):
"But some HHS staffers objected to the involvement of the secretary's office, saying the goal was to exclude the Catholic bishops, individuals familiar with the matter said.
"It was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media. "That's very distasteful to people."
To say the least. Unfairness is distasteful; revictimizing trafficking victims is abhorrent.
One also wonders if it can be legal. Not that anyone's trying to put anyone on the hook.
Follow Sister Mary Ann Walsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/USCCB