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An ambitious plan by the Washington, D.C. government to create a multimillion dollar crime victims assistance program was rejected by Congress last week, leading some community activists to criticize Mayor Anthony Williams for not pushing hard enough for the program. “This did not reach the level of priority in the mayor’s office where it needed to be,” says Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, a nonprofit organization that counsels sexual assault victims and stood to gain from the plan. “Had it been made a priority rather than a back-burner issue, it would have been a very cost-efficient way to increase assistance for victims.” City officials wanted to support the victim’s program with $18 million in surplus D.C. court funds — money that Congress last year directed the court to turn over to the U.S. Treasury on Oct. 1. The mayor vowed to fight to keep the funds in the District, arguing that the money was raised in D.C. from criminal fines and therefore should be spent on victim services. But victim advocates and criminal justice officials say his administration failed to make that effort a priority during this year’s budget negotiations. They say the plan also received little support from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Three congressional staffers say D.C. leaders showed very little interest in the issue until late in the budget cycle. A detailed written proposal requesting the funds wasn’t sent to Capitol Hill until last month. When House and Senate lawmakers agreed on a $4.8 billion spending plan for the city last week, the crime victims program was mentioned only briefly, and rejected. Late last week, city officials and Rep. James Moran, D-Va., were scrambling for support on Capitol Hill to salvage the project, reaching out to, among others, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. DeLay has been a longtime supporter of D.C.’s Safe Shores program for juvenile victims of crime. That program stood to gain $3.5 million if the D.C. victim assistance plan was passed, according to one D.C. official. But without such extraordinary intervention from either DeLay, other congressional leaders, or President Bill Clinton, the $18 million for the victims program will be lost by the District and absorbed by the federal government. “Victims are a priority for this administration,” says Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety. “It’s unfortunate, and we’re disappointed that Congress did not see it our way on this issue.” FEDERAL SCRUTINY The fight over who should control the surplus funds in the D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Fund surfaced more than a year ago amid federal scrutiny over how the D.C. court system was spending its budget. The fund — made up of criminal fines and fees, as well as Justice Department grants — offers money to victims of violent crime to pay for funerals, crime scene cleanup, health care, and other expenses. It gives money directly to victims; by law, it does not allow money to be spent on victim assistance programs, such as the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. (The proposal submitted by the District this year would have removed this restriction.) The fund, managed by D.C. Superior Court since 1997, has paid out roughly $1.5 million a year. (Over the past year, the fund distributed more than $2 million to cover 1,023 claims.) The courts were depositing about $8 million annually into the victims’ fund, and a surplus soon built up. When court leaders ran into budget problems in 1998, they tried to tap into the victims account to fund court operations. The move grabbed the attention of federal overseers and led to a provision in last year’s budget bill requiring the courts to return any surplus in the account to the U.S. Treasury by Oct. 1, 2000. City officials, who saw a one-time opportunity to use the surplus to establish a victims service center, said they would press on. A committee — spearheaded by the Williams administration and made up of victims advocates, prosecutors, and police — began assessing funding needs and looking at a legislative fix that would allow the District to spend the money on victims assistance. The Justice Department also lent its support to the District’s efforts. NONCHALANT NORTON But trouble began early this year, according to four criminal justice officials, when Delegate Norton balked at giving some of the surplus to nonprofit victims organizations. Eventually, these sources say, Norton reluctantly agreed to lend her support. But the less-than-enthusiastic response from such a key player on the Hill hampered the District’s effort. A spokeswoman says Norton never opposed the initiative, but felt the issue was moot. “The District wanted money that had already been returned to the Treasury, and money cannot be returned [to the city] from the Treasury,” she says. Still, according to one federal official, the White House was prepared to throw its weight behind the victims plan by including a provision in its fiscal year 2001 budget bill. But Norton and city officials, who year after year fight to keep Congress from attaching social amendments to the D.C. budget, made a strategic decision that would have ramifications for the victims proposal: The city asked the White House to keep its budget bill free of any special items related to D.C. spending, the official says. The decision was a setback because it took away presidential pressure on Congress. There was also a disagreement between two federal agencies over whether the surplus had already been counted as federal funds — meaning if the city was allowed to keep the money, then it would have to be counted against other requests in the D.C. budget because of an overall cap on federal funding. By this point, budget negotiations had begun, and federal lawmakers had yet to see a proposal from the city. The mayor’s budget — sent to Capitol Hill in June — requested that the money be returned to the District. Yet Williams’ legislative staffers weren’t pushing for it, according to three congressional staffers and three criminal justice officials. “My reading from the mayor’s office was that this was not a top-tier priority,” says one congressional staffer who asked not to be named. Turnover in the office responsible for drafting a spending plan contributed to the lapse. “The plan was not written, and there was no response” from the deputy mayor’s office, says one person who worked on the proposal. Erik Christian, former deputy mayor for public safety, notes that there was a delay because of staff transitions, but added in a statement that “it was important that all of our partners were given an opportunity and time to review and discuss this plan.” Last month, the city finally put together an 80-page proposal. Kellems, the proposal’s chief author, was hired by Williams on Sept. 12 to replace Christian. Three days later, she presented the plan to House budget staffers. It was too late. The delicate dance by D.C. officials, Hill appropriators, and federal officials over the D.C. budget had moved forward without the victims plan.

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