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 those of President Donald Trump 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, Hookers for Jesus has drawn down only about $32,000 of the funds.
It was unclear why the organization has tapped only a fraction of the grant.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mollie Timmons said that Hookers for Jesus “underwent a merit-based review” and that independent peer reviewers also determined its application “met the necessary criteria” and “scored them highly.”
Annie Lobert, who runs the nonprofit, did not 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.”
In general, recipients of federal funds are not permitted by anti-discrimination laws to use the funds to engage in explicitly religious activities.
In a May 12 letter to Lobert, the Office for Civil Rights in the Justice Department’s grant-making arm determined that Hookers for Jesus was not in violation of federal rules requiring it to keep religious activities separate from federally-funded ones because it did not plan to use the money to support Destiny House until the second and third years of the grant.
It instructed Lobert to develop “a plan to ensure compliance” with the law once Hookers for Jesus begins to start using the funds for Destiny House in 2021.
In an interview earlier this year with Reuters, Lobert denied that her group forces the women to go to church. She declined to provide updated copies of her policy manuals.
The Justice Department now requires all recipients of 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.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O’Brien)