Mary Frances Berry yesterday defended her legal action in seeking to join a lawsuit filed against her and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which she has chaired since being appointed by President Clinton in 1993.
At the monthly meeting of the panel, Miss Berry accused the Justice Department of failing to act properly.
“The Justice Department, instead of recusing itself and asking both parties to get outside counsel, decided to weigh in on the side of the administration,” said Miss Berry, who is fighting to save a seat of Victoria Wilson, one of her political allies on the commission.
The White House contends that Miss Wilson’s term has expired and the president has named her replacement. Miss Berry, however, refuses to recognize Cleveland labor lawyer Peter Kirsanow, prompting the Justice Department lawsuit that targets her and the commission.
“Having done that,” Miss Berry said, “there was no alternative except for the commission to represent its own position.”
Miss Berry, a declared political independent who has donated over $20,000 to Democratic causes since 1990, now has a 5-3 political majority on the panel. If Mr. Kirsanow is seated, there will be a 4-4 political split on the panel, which would diminish Miss Berry’s power.
Miss Berry said she is simply interested in maintaining the independence of the commission and that the court’s ruling “will determine who is right here. We will do whatever the court requires us to do.”
Last month, Miss Berry and several Democrats on the panel refused to recognize Mr. Kirsanow. Miss Wilson was appointed in January 2000 by President Clinton to fill a seat left empty with the death of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham.
The White House contends that Judge Higginbotham’s term ended Nov. 29, and that Miss Wilson’s appointment was only good until then. Miss Berry argues that the 1994 law says every appointee to the commission, no matter what the cause, has a six-year term.
She and Democratic commissioner Cruz Reynoso filed a motion in December to join the lawsuit as affected third parties, and included the commission as a body in their motion. They did so without asking for commission consensus and they retained the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.
Yesterday, staff director Les Jin, who authorized the move, defended it as ”the prudent thing to do.”
“I have been in federal government for 15 years,” said Mr. Jin, who was appointed to his position on the commission by Mr. Clinton in September 2000. “[Obtaining outside counsel] is not extraordinary at all.”
Initially, a lawyer from the New York firm told The Washington Times it was acting pro bono, or providing free legal service. If true, this would violate a commission statute forbidding the use of uncompensated personnel.
The day that the lawyer’s comments were made public, Miss Berry issued a statement that the counsel was being paid.
Payment would constitute using commission resources for an unauthorized purpose, according to a letter from Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Constitution. The Ohio Republican has led a charge against Miss Berry that some say may develop into a full congressional investigation into the work of the commission.
“Your abuse of office and unlawful conduct does the traditions and history of the commission a great disservice,” Mr. Chabot wrote in a Jan. 9 letter.