- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has issued subpoenas to three Bush Cabinet members and the EPA's chief for a Feb. 8 hearing on environmental justice, ratcheting up complaints that the agency is overextending its political muscle.
The summons are the first from the commission to involve sitting Cabinet members in at least 20 years. No one from President Clinton's Cabinet was subpoenaed.
The orders were issued to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, and Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The commission also sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Gale A. Norton, advising her that she would receive a subpoena. As of yesterday, the order had not arrived.
The timing of the subpoenas less than a week before a U.S. District Court is to hear arguments in a case involving two persons who each contend to be a legitimate appointee is seen by some insiders as a political tweak of the administration.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry "has been a thorn in the side of every Republican," said one former commission staffer. "She beat Reagan and thinks she can now beat Bush."
In 1983, Miss Berry was removed from the commission by President Reagan and later reinstated by a court decision.
Cleveland labor lawyer Peter Kirsanow was appointed last month by President Bush to fill the seat of Victoria Wilson.
Miss Wilson maintains that her November 2000 appointment is for six years; the White House maintains that she was filling an unexpired term, which has ended. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.
Miss Berry enjoys a political majority on the panel, which would be endangered if the court seated Mr. Kirsanow, a black conservative.
The White House referred all questions on the subpoenas to the Justice Department, which refused to comment. Miss Berry did not return calls.
"This is a very sensitive subject, this commission," said one White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The commission is engaged in hearings at Miss Wilson's suggestion on charges that environmentally risky projects such as oil refineries and nuclear waste sites are often located in areas with concentrations of minorities and the impoverished.
The issue of environmental justice has been around since the early '80s with dozens of tax-exempt groups dedicated to advocacy and lobbying. The Louisiana state Commission on Civil Rights completed a study in the 1990s, asserting that many environmentally unsafe areas are found in communities with high minority populations.
Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, an outspoken critic of Miss Berry, called the subpoenas "a waste of time" for the Cabinet members.
"We are at war, and we are wasting the time of Cabinet officials," Miss Thernstrom said. "These aren't even the right people to subpoena. They have experts in the field of environmental justice at the EPA."
Cruz Reynoso, who supports Miss Berry, denied the charges of politicization and said the subpoenas are necessary to the work of the commission which has investigative and subpoena powers, but no enforcement authority.
"They were called and asked for a convenient time to appear, I assume. And when we received either no response or a negative reponse, the subpoena was issued," Mr. Reynoso said.
"It seems perfectly legitimate to call these folks," he added. "Everything the commission has done, if someone objects, it has been called political."
Les Jin, the commission's staff director, said the supoenas were "routine," although he acknowledged that he did not know the last time a Cabinet member was summoned by the agency.
"It is done to both protect us and the people we are asking to testify," Mr. Jin said.
A spokesman for Mrs. Norton, who will not be able to appear because of a schedule conflict, said he was told that the secretary would be asked questions related to Indian land.
"We have an entire department on Indian affairs that has a lot of experts," said Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery.
A spokesman for Mr. Mineta said the Transportation Department would respond in "an appropriate fashion."
Mrs. Whitman "won't be there," said EPA spokesman Joe Martyak.
"We had been in contact with the commission before," he said. "We had said there was a scheduling conflict, but we've offered to have a deputy there."

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