- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

A congressman accused the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of withholding documents from a House subcommittee seeking information about the commission's report on Florida's voting problems in last year's election.

In a letter Wednesday to the commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, accused Miss Berry of "a deliberate attempt to conceal from the subcommittee evidence that the commission spent" money on a private public relations firm in excess of the budgeted amount.

He said the commission's failure to produce documents requested in June was in "flagrant disregard" of congressional authority.

The letter asked for all documents related to professor Allan Lichtman, a key figure in the commission's June report that disparaged Florida officials and concluded that black voters were nine times more likely than white voters to have their vote discounted.

Mr. Chabot, chairman of the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, noted that Mr. Lichtman's consultant rate of $2,400 a day was more than six times the rate allowed to the commission. Previous documents obtained by the subcommittee indicate Mr. Lichtman was paid well over the approved rate.

Records obtained by The Washington Times show that District-based public relations firm McKinney & McDowell has received $80,000 in the past year for services; other news agencies have reported that the commission has paid the firm as much as $135,000 since last year.

The congressionally dictated cap for such expenditures is $50,000 annually.

"As you know, the unauthorized expenditure of appropriated funds is subject to criminal penalties," Mr. Chabot warned in his pointed missive.

The commission has its own three-person public-affairs office, which draws a combined annual salary of $208,537, according to records.

Miss Berry was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Calls to the commission yesterday were not returned.

Mr. Chabot has sent four letters to Miss Berry since June, when a "leak" allowed three news agencies to receive copies of the Florida report compiled by the commission. His initial inquiry was aimed at finding out how the leak occurred.

Miss Berry did not respond. Instead, staff director Les Jin wrote back and told Mr. Chabot that "it is virtually impossible to either stop all leaks or to identify the individual or individuals responsible."

Mr. Chabot, a four-term congressman from Cincinnati, also criticized the assertion by Mr. Jin in a July 30 letter that is was permissible for the commission to "modify or deviate from if it fulfills the mission of the commission."

At that time, Mr. Chabot asked for all documents related to the premature release, "including all documents relating to McKinney/McDowell Associates' involvement in the public disclosure of the draft report."

At that time, all press calls to the commission were referred to McKinney & McDowell. But Mr. Jin said there were no records relating to McKinney & McDowell.

Mr. Chabot gave Miss Berry one week to produce all documents relating to contractors and consultants hired by the commission.

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