House committee grills civil rights panel

By KATHY A. GAMBRELL, UPI White House Reporter  |  April 11, 2002 at 6:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 11 (UPI) -- The United States Commission on Civil Rights was placed under a congressional microscope Thursday as lawmakers held a hearing on the agency's management practices and accusations of discrimination against its Republican members.

"The decline in public confidence in the commission has led the Subcommittee on the Constitution to conduct oversight to evaluate the commission's operations," said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

Chabot said the subcommittee was concerned about the impact of management on the quality of the commission's work, exclusion and disparagement of the minority viewpoints, failure to implement General Accounting Office reforms recommended five years ago, reports of unregulated document shredding, and its refusal to forward hate crime complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation.

Tensions among Berry, the White House and Chabot's committee have escalated since the summer, when Chabot's committee demanded Berry turn over supporting documents used to compile a report on voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election. The request came amid growing conflict over whether the statistical data was flawed.

Berry who had a history of difficult relationships with Republican-controlled White House did not appear at the oversight hearing.

She has told the subcommittee is the commission cannot exercise its statutory mandate to act as a watchdog over the enforcement of our civil rights laws, if it is not free to choose its own experts, write reports without interference and publish conclusions without fear of reprisal.

The animosity grew between Berry and Republicans after a U.S. District Court judge ruled in February against President George W. Bush's attempt to seat his own nominee on the commission. The conflict was over a 1994 congressional statute reauthorizing the commission that omitted language about staggered terms for its members.

During the course of the 90-minute oversight hearing, Republicans charged that the agency had not lived up to its mission and had dissolved into a national embarrassment. Across the table, Democratic supporters called the investigation a partisan retribution prompted by the commission's critical report on the Florida 2000 presidential election and praised its work as maintaining the noble tradition of the civil rights movement.

"I see no loss of public confidence in the commission," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "I see a campaign of defamation against the commission launched by the right wing, people who don't approve of civil rights as part of the Republican Party."

The eight-member commission, led by controversial civil rights activist Mary France Berry, investigates cases of discrimination makes recommendations to Congress and the president. But over the last few years, partisan in fighting has dogged it.

A GAO report charged widespread financial and administrative mismanagement within the agency. It currently has a $9 million budget, though it had unsuccessfully requested that White House Office of Management and Budget increase its funding to $16 million.

"In practice, the commission hurts more than it helps. It sullies the drive for civil rights and taints a cause to which every American should be committed. That is the picture I have seen in the 15 months I have served. A review of the historical record shows this has been the case for years," testified Republican Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom.

Thernstrom and Commissioner Russell G. Redenbaugh, an independent, had challenged the validity of the controversial Florida report was approved by the commission in early June. The report found that ballots cast by blacks were nine times more likely to be spoiled than those cast by whites, and also concluded that faulty voting machines were more likely to be used in areas with minority voters. Redenbaugh and Thernstrom released a statement calling the report "faulty analysis" that relied on "vague and unsubstantiated claims" about problems with the Florida vote.

Berry had initially refused to accept their written dissent.

Thernstrom also complained that staff director Les Jin blocked her access to commission staff and documents and changed scheduled hearing witnesses without notice. And witnesses that did not reflect the view of the Democratic majority were not allowed to speak before the panel.

Jin defended his actions saying commission policies aimed at protecting fairness among the commissioners prevented Thernstrom from speaking with staff members He blamed their disagreements on political bickering.

"It is not secret that at time the Commission is very divided based on political philosophy. Sometimes these philosophical differences get translated into other arenas, such as management issues," Jin said.

Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group criticized the commission's handling of a telephone hotline set up to field post-Sept. 11 hate crime complaints from Arabs and Muslims that mistakenly routed calls to a love connection line.

"We were disappointed with ... Berry's remarks at the Oct. 12 commission meeting concerning the botched hotline. She said, 'People around the country have expressed their gratitude, so I think we ought to be proud that we're doing this rather than worrying about whether it's helping anybody'" Schatz said.

Schatz recommended the subcommittee consider obtaining a new GAO study of the commission for an up-to-date impartial view of the agency.

Rep. Lamar S. Smith, R-Texas, wondered whether a complete restructuring of the commission might be in order as he raised questions about the retention of a private K Street public relations firm McKinney and McDowell to represent the agency while it already employed three full-time staff people to handle media requests.

Jin defended the firm, saying that the commission's public affairs staff did not have expertise needed to handle the needs of the agency, but agreed he would try to re-evaluate the decision to hire an experienced public affairs director.

The firm was paid $135,000 in 2000 and since then between $185,000 and $190,000, according to the Jin. Jin explained the firm was hired through a purchase agreement rather than a contract, an arrangement that was in place when he was hired nearly two years ago. The firm also was not chosen through a competitive bidding process, he said.

Schatz said it was "highly unusual" for a commission to hire a public relations firm, citing statements from other similar bodies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. Sentencing Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission who all do their own press work.

McKinney and McDowell is the second contract the subcommittee has considered suspect. After defiantly refusing to seat Bush's nominee, Berry hired the powerful law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison to represent her, a move Chabot said raised "serious and legal ethical concerns" even though they were not being paid. Hiring staff on a pro-bono basis, Chabot said, violated commission statutes prohibiting the use of free services.

Chabot had told Berry that if the attorneys were paid with government money, Berry could be subject to criminal penalties of up to two years in prison and $5,000 in fines. Berry used the same argument when she didn't allow Republicans to use John Lott, a Yale University legal scholar, to review findings in the commission's Florida election report, Chabot said earlier this year.

Aides in the House Judiciary Committee office said it was unclear what subcommittee members would do next since the oversight hearing was held to air complaints and allegations against the agency.

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