- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold its monthly meeting today to discuss its report on the Florida election in the midst of the latest attacks on the group as a partisan body.

The panel´s two conservative members already have vigorously attacked as unfounded the conclusions of the 198-page report, leaked early to three newspapers, that political leaders in Florida, mostly Republicans, disenfranchised minorities in the November presidential election.

Originally created in 1957 as a bipartisan group that would investigate civil rights abuses in the era of Jim Crow segregation laws, the panel stands accused by detractors of being a politicized body that now leans to the left, reflecting the appointments made by President Clinton.

"It is simply a political football," Susan Prado, the commission´s acting staff director in the 1980s, says of the panel.

"It is a political football the size of a golf ball," adds Michael Fumento, a conservative who served as assistant general counsel at the commission during the ´80s.

Part of the explanation is that four commissioners are appointed by the president and four by Congress; observers say their leanings are bound to reflect their patrons´ politics.

The current chairman, Mary Frances Berry, 63, was appointed by Mr. Clinton. Though a declared political independent, she has donated $19,000 to Democratic causes since 1992.

The panel also includes four registered Democrats — Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso, Victoria Wilson, Yvonne Lee and Elsie Meeks. The other members are Republican Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh, a declared independent who often sides with Mrs. Thernstrom.

The commission has 76 employees and an annual budget of $9 million.

Though it has no legal standing, save for subpoena powers, several media outlets herald its pronouncements.

"They use these reports for political purposes. it is more about politics than about scholarship," said Miss Prado, who now heads a private business in Los Angeles. "For a very long time, the reports have been highly politicized to advance the agenda of whoever has a majority. And that´s on both sides.

"Nothing has changed," said Miss Prado, who arrived at the commission in 1984 after working for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat. She served as acting staff director and assistant to two chairmen before moving on five years later to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because, she said she wanted to go "where I could do some real good."

"It serves no further useful purpose," said former staff director J. Al Latham Jr., a Reagan appointee who adds that was his opinion of the panel even when it was Republican-heavy. "Its mission was to facilitate the end of Jim Crow and segregation, an honorable and distinguished achievement."

Defenders say the commission is still needed and has helped many who may not have had a voice without it.

But politicization of the agency has drawn fire from both sides, depending on the ruling party in Washington.

In the 1980s, President Reagan attempted to rein in the commission by naming conservative Democrats and sacking three of the more radical members, recalls one insider who has worked there for more than a decade.

"But it got worse after that, when I got here," recalls one employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity — as did several current and former staffers, citing possible repercussions.

"Who wants to bad-mouth an organization that is supposed to have such noble intentions?" one asks.

Mr. Fumento recalls that the agency often was mistaken for the EEOC.

"The conservatives wanted to get rid of it, then the Democrats were irate," he said. "And now, nobody takes these guys seriously."

The agency constantly suffered from internal political and personal strife, Mr. Fumento said.

"They do nothing. And if the New York Times and The Washington Post and those newspapers take them seriously, they still accomplish nothing."

In 1986, an audit by the General Accounting Office, conducted at the behest of four Democratic House members, found financial irregularities and mismanagement.

At that time, the panel was accused of failing to monitor the enforcement of civil rights. Politics, of course, were blamed for the "unfair, inaccurate and incomplete" report, then-Chairman Clarence Pendleton Jr. said.

In 1996, the Office of Personnel Management investigated. This inquiry, supported by Rep. Charles Canady, Florida Republican, called the commission "badly in need of managerial attention."

Since the Reagan years, there have been many cries to disband the commission, perhaps none so succinct as those of a prominent liberal former Rep. Patricia Schroeder.

"How can we explain to our constituents the fact that we give this sleazy outfit $12 million to waste?" the Colorado Democrat said.

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