- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will be investigated for purported misuse of funds relating to commissioners’ expenses and commission operations, a House Judiciary Committee investigator said yesterday.

“We want to know where the money has gone,” said the investigator with the Judiciary panel, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They have 66 employees right now, Congress has budgeted the agency for 76, but the commission has asked for buyouts for up to 24 employees. We have requested an audit of 2003.”

The commission was scheduled to meet yesterday, but the meeting was canceled several minutes after its 9:30 a.m. start time. Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said the meeting was called because only four of the eight members were present.

The commission is split 4-4 between liberal and conservative ideologies. Four are appointed by Congress, and the other four are appointed by the president.

The other four commissioners, the conservative half of the panel, arrived about 9:40, but the meeting already had been dismissed.

Two lawyers from the Judiciary Committee were present yesterday and had hoped to hear discussion on an agenda item dealing with the buyouts. After the meeting was dismissed, the lawyers sought to meet with Miss Berry at her office to talk about the issue.

As they sat in the waiting area of the commissioner’s office, Miss Berry left through a back door down the hallway.

“Congress provides the commission with approximately $9 million a year of taxpayer money,” said Julia Tomala, chief oversight counsel with the committee. “It is an insult to Congress and to taxpayers for Ms. Berry to sneak out the back door and refuse to account for hers and the commissions’ actions.”

The commission was criticized by the General Accounting Office (GAO) last fall in a report titled “More Operational and Financial Oversight Needed.”

Accordingly, the agency has not seen an increase in its $9 million annual budget for nine years.

In February, agency staff director Les Jin received permission from the Office of Personnel Management to offer buyouts to select employees. Mr. Jin, in a Feb. 10 letter requesting the buyouts, said the move could avoid layoffs and cited the agency’s “dire financial circumstances.”

The buyouts attracted the attention of the four conservative commissioners. The Republicans criticized the staff director for not informing them of the move, as well as for his supposed refusal to respond to questions about the financial state of the commission.

Miss Berry said yesterday the staff director is responsible for personnel, not the commissioners.

“The staff director is the manager of the agency,” she said. “The commissioners are all part time. Some people think we are running the agency, but that’s not true. We all have regular jobs.”

Mr. Jin said yesterday he will meet tomorrow with the officials from the GAO.

“We will cooperate with them as we have in the past,” Mr. Jin said. “It takes a lot of time for the staff to work with the GAO, and for small agencies like ours, it can be quite costly.”

He said the GAO report cost the agency $100,000 in labor and associated costs.

The commission has been infected by strife during the past several years, although this is the first time in years that fiscal problems have beset the agency. And the abrupt cancellation of the meeting yesterday is one more malfunction in what is becoming the board’s legacy.

“This meeting was canceled because [Miss Berry] had no interest in the business at hand,” said Commissioner Jennifer Braceras, a Republican.

“We adjourned on counsel’s advice,” Miss Berry said. “There were only four of us, and there was nothing left to do.”

The commission is scheduled to meet June 11.

Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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