Thursday, May 13, 2004

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whose books have gone without an audit for 13 years, is offering buyouts to its staff in hopes of forestalling layoffs, citing “dire financial circumstances.”

In February, commission Staff Director Les Jin asked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees the agency’s staffing costs, for permission to offer buyouts to employees.

“We request the availability of buyout authority for up to six employees over a period of approximately 3 months, through May 2004,” Mr. Jin said in a Feb. 10 letter obtained by The Washington Times. “The use of buyouts would reduce the disruptive effects of a possible [layoff] on the agency’s operations and the ability to carry out its mission and would mitigate the impact of the agency’s dire financial circumstances on affected employees.”

Two commissioners, though, say the buyouts were not approved by the eight-member panel and that Mr. Jin asked for the buyouts while assuring commissioners that the agency is financially sound.

The situation at the commission came to light last week as commissioners requested that the buyouts be discussed at the agency’s next meeting, which is scheduled for Monday.

During a January meeting, commissioners asked Mr. Jin about the agency’s finances, particularly questioning the wisdom of holding a Feb. 20 meeting in Seattle.

“I think our travels are certainly a very reasonable use of resources, and obviously anything we do that’s of value costs some money, whether it be our reports … everything,” Mr. Jin told the commissioners. “So in terms of the context of everything, I think it’s a very reasonable expenditure under the circumstances.”

Commissioner Russell G. Redenbaugh said Mr. Jin’s response constitutes a “misrepresentation of the issue,” especially considering that the staff director gave the commissioners no information concerning layoffs and the proposed buyouts.

“In the time of Enrons and the recent sentencing of [Lea] Fastow, who was sentenced for misrepresentation, this is important,” Mr. Redenbaugh said. “The commission has a fiduciary responsibility.”

Mrs. Fastow, wife of former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, last week pleaded guilty to knowingly delivering a partially fraudulent tax return and was sentenced to one year in prison.

OPM last month approved the buyouts. Mr. Jin proposed six buyouts, “each not to exceed $25,000.”

In letters dated April 12 and April 15, Mr. Redenbaugh asked Mr. Jin for a copy of his request to OPM. Mr. Jin did not respond, the commissioner said.

Mr. Jin declined to comment for this story.

Another commissioner, Peter N. Kirsanow, said that when he asked the staff director about the financial state of the commission, “Mr. Jin would not put into writing any kind of response as to whether there was any need for financial constraint in our ability to travel.”

“The reason he gave for the buyouts was the severe budgetary constraints under which the commission was laboring,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “It was also suggested that the buyouts constitute a restructuring of the commission. But the bottom line is that when he was making this request to the [Office of Personnel Management], he never told any of us this.”

A report from the General Accounting Office last fall stated that “little, if any, external oversight of the commission’s financial activities has taken place in recent years. An independent accounting firm has not audited the commission’s financial statements for the last 12 years.”

Because of the lack of an audit, the agency has not received an increase in its $9 million annual budget for nine years.

After the GAO report, the House and Senate judiciary committees asked the accounting office to conduct an audit of the commission.

In 14 attempts to meet with Mr. Jin between April 19 and May 4, the GAO was denied in a series of unreturned calls, reported illness and delays, the Wall Street Journal first reported last week.

“Despite the authority with which the GAO representatives have requested the cooperation of Staff Director Jin, he has failed to comply,” reads a letter sent to the agency’s commissioners last week by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “We find it hard to believe that Mr. Jin has been unable to find a single hour in which to hold an opening conference with GAO representatives.”

A commission majority voted in 2002 to hold meetings at various U.S. locations that would be selected by Mr. Jin and approved by the commission chairman, Mary Frances Berry.

Miss Berry did not return calls seeking comment.

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