- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

An audit released yesterday found widespread financial mismanagement and irregularities at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, six years after the panel was told to clean up its act.

The General Accounting Office found that the commission “lacks sufficient management control” in awarding contracts and gives orders orally, rather than in writing as required by law.

Key documentation was missing on how a $156,000 contract for media services was awarded. The commission failed to prove that it put the contract out for competitive bidding.

The eight-member commission has acknowledged that while it spends about $200,000 on annual salaries for a three-person public-affairs staff, it has also paid $135,000 since late 2000 to local public relations group McKinney and Associates. A spokeswoman from the firm said Gwen McKinney was not available for comment yesterday.

“Little if any external oversight of the commission’s financial activities has taken place in recent years” and there has been no independent audit of the commission’s financial statements in the last 12 years, the report said.

The commission has operated on a $9 million budget since 1995.

The GAO review was requested by Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee. Mr. Chabot has challenged the commission on several fronts in the past year and wanted a follow-up to a 1997 GAO study that found the commission to be “an agency in disarray.”

In some cases, commissioners, who are presidentially appointed and serve six-year terms, were not given the opportunity to review commission reports issued to the public. This failure significantly reduces “the opportunity for commissioners to help shape a report’s findings, recommendations and policy implications of civil rights issues,” the report said.

All four Republican commissioners concurred with the findings in a written response. All the liberal-leaning commissioners either did not return phone calls or did not respond to the report in writing.

The Republican commissioners said the findings underscore their concerns that the commission is being run solely by staff director Les Jin, a Clinton appointee.

“In particular, the report raises two global questions about the administration of this agency; (1) Who is in charge? (2) Who has the authority to speak for the commission? In both cases, one thing is clear: It is not the commissioners,” said commissioners Peter Kirsanow, Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh in their written response. Commissioner Jennifer Braceras added her concurring comments in a separate letter.

Very few reports were approved by the commission last year, they said.

“Instead, the staff director chose not to bring reports to a vote of the commission and simply discussed ‘staff reports’ and other documents, claiming that commission approval was not required,” the commissioners said. “As this report also makes clear, commissioners often do not have the opportunity to review official commission documents before they are released to the public.”

Reports released by the commission in 2002 include Florida election reform, racial data collection and education accountability, according to Mr. Jin’s 11-page rebuttal to the GAO’s most substantial findings.

“The draft presumes that it is desirable for commissioners to shape a report’s findings and recommendations when the commission has specifically rejected the view. The commission has a long history of the career civil-servant staff researching and drafting reports with conclusions supported by facts,” he said in his rebuttal. Mr. Jin did not return calls for comment yesterday.

A statement from the House Judiciary Committee called Mr. Jin’s response “a remarkable display of hubris.”

Mr. Jin said the commission is committed to ensuring operations are well maintained and that he will consider implementing the GAO’s recommendations.

“However, the staff director believed that many of the findings were inaccurate and that aspects of the draft report contained errors, unsubstantiated allegations and misinterpretations,” the GAO report said.

Commissioners have the opportunity to meet with the staff director and other staff members for project briefings, Mr. Jin said.

“I have never turned down such a request,” he said.

Mr. Jin said the criticism of how contracts are awarded from the agency “are overstated and erroneous.”

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the report shows the commission “is plagued by mismanagement and a flouting of good management practices.

“Something has gone terribly awry if the USCCR commissioners do not shape the findings and recommendations of reports generated by the USCCR,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

Earlier this year, the commission — whose primary responsibility is the promotion of civil rights — was found to have violated the civil rights of an employee, costing taxpayers $165,000 in damages and other expenses, Mr. Chabot said.

“The commission is now more a public spectacle than it is a serious fact-finding agency that informs the public about the state of civil rights in America.” Mr. Chabot said.

Steve Miller contributed to this report.

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