- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

A House Judiciary subcommittee is investigating the finances of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whose chairman, Mary Frances Berry, is in a dispute over whether her term ends this week or next month.

“We are looking into management, financials, contracting …,” confirmed Mindy Barry, oversight counsel for the Constitution, civil rights and property rights subcommittee, which has authorized but not yet used a subpoena to obtain the needed information.

The subpoena seeks “all documents referring to all contracts, specifically dealings with [public relations firms] McKinney and Associates and McKinney and McDowell; all documents regarding any fees paid to anyone,” said a source familiar with the investigation.

Earlier this year, the commission refused to cooperate in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation.

The subcommittee’s inquiry was triggered by unsatisfactory reviews by the GAO, which sought to find out how the commission spent its money.

“It also comes from the fact that over the years, this commission has not been held accountable on a number of levels,” Ms. Barry said, adding that while the commission is not “large on the radar screen” of oversight with a $9 million budget and 70 employees, “it is seen by so many as giving a bad name to civil rights, to that cause.”

The review of the eight-member commission comes on the heels of an October GAO report that said, among other problems, the panel needed to update its strategic plan. The GAO said the commission’s current plan “lacks a firm basis on which to develop its annual goals and evaluate its performance.”

The review also said the commission’s financial record keeping did not follow procedure, that it failed to associate costs with stated projects, and that in many instances, it failed to follow the advice of the GAO from previous reviews.

“Over the past decade, we reviewed the commission’s travel, management and financial practices and made recommendations for improvement,” the GAO said, noting that the commission, without an independent financial audit “in at least 12 years,” had not acted on a suggestion that a review be undertaken to meet the fiscal responsibilities of the Accountability of Tax Dollars Act of 2002, which ended in October.

The GAO review was an extension of the flaws found and reported over the years. In 1997, the GAO cited numerous troubles at the agency, and concluded that it “lacked good project management and that its contracting procedures were inadequate.”

In the early 1990s, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also made several recommendations it felt would improve commission operations, although few changes were made.

Earlier this year, commission staff director Les Jin received permission from the OPM to offer buyouts to select employees. He said in a Feb. 10 letter the move could avoid layoffs and cited the agency’s “dire financial circumstances.”

Mr. Jin did not return calls for comment.

The commission is on the brink of a personnel shake-up as the terms of Ms. Berry and Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso are coming to an end and both are expected to be replaced. They have said their terms end Jan. 21, while the White House contends their tenure is complete tomorrow.

Late Thursday, Ms. Berry canceled the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 10, , citing “insufficient substantive items” on the agenda.

Ms. Berry and Mr. Reynoso were named in 1998 to fill uncompleted terms that end Dec. 5, 2004. But President Clinton delayed appointing Ms. Berry until Jan. 21, 1999.

White House records show Ms. Berry’s term is up tomorrow, conflicting with a Nov. 9 memo sent to commissioners asserting that “the next commissioner terms that will be ending are those of Chairperson Berry and Vice Chairperson Reynoso. According to long-standing commission records, those terms end on midnight, January 21, 2005.”

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said this week that Ms. Berry’s term “expires on December 5.” He declined to speculate on a possible replacement.

Ms. Berry and Mr. Reynoso could not be reached for comment.

A similar disagreement over term dates was settled in a federal court in 2002, when Peter Kirsanow was appointed to replace commissioner Victoria Wilson, who was also placed on the commission to fill a partially completed term. The court ruled that Ms. Wilson’s tenure was limited to the term she was appointed to fulfill.

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