- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, involved in a bitter legal contest over a White House appointment that could wipe out its Democratic majority, is asking for a $6 million budget increase for 2003 as it faces continued accusations of partisanship and fiscal misconduct.
"The commission is facing two extraordinary expenses in 2003," commission staff director Les Jin wrote in a letter last week to Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. "These expenses are the commission's lease and payroll contract."
Mr. Jin said the two additional expenses will combine to cost an estimated $1 million annually. He said extra funding would go to expanding the commission's office of general counsel and its 51 state offices, as well as enhanced Internet services.
"Maintaining the same level of funding for a ninth consecutive year will severely impede the commission's ability to appropriately monitor and report on the status of civil rights issues," Mr. Jin wrote.
An administration official yesterday said the commission had submitted a similar request last year, "and they were instructed not to again."
"They are given a figure to work with, but they ignored it for the second time," the official said.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has recommended a modest increase of the commission's annual appropriation to $9.575 million. The increase the commission is asking for would be a 66 percent jump.
"The request for any increase is way out of line," Mr. Chabot said yesterday. "There should be no additional funding at all. This commission has become a public spectacle rather than a serious fact-finding agency that informs the public about the state of civil rights in this country.
"There should be no additional money until we review and make sure that the commission is doing its job."
The eight-member panel that drives the commission originally was designed to be equally divided among the two major political parties. But it is now seen by detractors as a tool of commission leader Mary Frances Berry, a Carter appointee who has contributed $19,000 to Democratic candidates since 1992.
The White House in December replaced commissioner and Democrat Victoria Wilson, whose term the administration says ended Nov. 29. Miss Berry disagreed and retained outside counsel to help keep Bush appointee Peter Kirsanow off the panel.
A judge last month ruled that Miss Wilson was the rightful appointee. An appeal is pending.
Critics say Miss Berry's solicitation of counsel, be it provided free or paid, violates commission compensation guidelines. The commission has its own legal staff.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chabot has secured numerous financial records from the commission and said yesterday that his staff is scrutinizing them.
"This agency has lost credibility in many places on both sides of the political spectrum, and until it can answer some serious questions, it should have no money for expansion," Mr. Chabot said.
The commission occupies three floors in a downtown office building and has a 75-person staff. It has operated with a budget of roughly $9 million for the past several years.
Seven commissioners are allowed to bill the agency for 75 days per year at $60 an hour, with a limit of 40 hours in a week. Miss Berry is allowed 125 billable days.
Mr. Chabot has challenged the commission on several fronts in the past year. He is investigating whether any changes at the commission were made after a 1997 report from the General Accounting Office that called the commission "an agency in disarray" and pointed out that there were "broad management problems."
But the commission's financial practices have been the subject of Mr. Chabot's inquiries in the past several months, and some staffers at the commission say they are preparing for a further investigation.
The commission has acknowledged that while it spends about $200,000 on annual salaries to a three-person "public affairs staff," it also has paid $135,000 since late 2000 to local public relations group McKinney and Associates.
In recent years, there have been similar requests to boost its budget. In 1996, the commission asked for a nearly 50 percent increase, to $13.26 million. In 1999, the request was $13.7 million, a 57.5 percent increase over fiscal 1998.
For 2001, the office submitted a budget figure of $13.74 million, a smaller request that was cited in the requesting letter as the result of "better management and foresight."
The agency has been denied each time.


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