By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Las Vegas-based nonprofit Hookers for Jesus has won a fresh grant from the U.S. Justice Department, less than a year after union officials filed a whistleblower complaint with the department's internal watchdog protesting federal funds awarded to the organization.
The group, run by a born-again Christian survivor of sex trafficking, operates a safe house for adult trafficking victims known as Destiny House.
It was the target of a December complaint by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 2830, which asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate whether politics factored in to a grant award for the group.
It was the second such complaint filed by the union in 2019 raising concerns about the grant-review process.
In August 2019, the union also asked for an investigation into whether department officials were improperly using political criteria to remove people who have expressed views contrary to President Donald Trump’s from participating in the process of reviewing grant applications.
Hookers for Jesus is now set to receive $498,764 in fresh federal funding, part of $35 million in grants to help provide housing for trafficking victims unveiled at the White House on Tuesday by Attorney General William Barr and Trump's daughter, Ivanka.
That is on top of the $530,190 that Hookers for Jesus was awarded in 2019 over three years to help expand services to trafficking victims.
A person briefed on the matter told Reuters that since the 2019 award was accepted, however, Hookers for Jesus has drawn down only about $32,000 of the funds.
Grant recipients are required to get budgets approved before they can draw on grant funds. It was unclear why Hookers for Jesus has tapped only a fraction of the 2019 grant.
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the new grants. Annie Lobert, who runs the nonprofit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the group's policy manuals showed that in 2010 and 2018, residents of the safe house were required to go to church, complete Christian homework, and were banned from reading "secular magazines with articles, pictures, etc. that portray worldly views/advice on living, sex, clothing, makeup tips."
Other rules limited everything from who victims could call to the freedom to bring their purses with them on weekly shopping trips.
In general, recipients of federal funds are not permitted by anti-discrimination laws to use the funds to engage in explicitly religious activities.
In February, Reuters reported exclusively that the Justice Department had denied funding to the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach and Chicanos Por La Causa of Phoenix, even though outside experts hired to review their grant applications gave them high marks.
Instead, the department funded Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation of South Carolina - two groups whose applications received inferior scores from the outside expert reviewers.
In this latest round of awards for housing assistance, both Chicanos Por La Causa and the Catholic Charities of Palm Beach were collectively awarded more than $885,000.
In an interview earlier this year, Lobert denied that her group forces the women to go to church, but she declined to provide updated copies of her policy manuals. The Justice Department in 2019 did not know about the 2018 policies prior to awarding the grant.
Since then, the Justice Department revised its policies and now requires all recipients of the anti-trafficking grants to provide copies of their policy manuals before they can receive the money.
The department's inspector general in June of this year declined to investigate the August 2019 concerns by the union about irregularities in the grant application process after the department agreed to take steps to improve its entire merit review process.
Reuters could not determine the status of the December 2019 complaint about Hookers for Jesus.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)