- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — the subject of a Government Accountability Office investigation scheduled to be released this week — spent more than $100,000 on a private public relations firm to promote its reports that were primarily critical of Republicans.

Records obtained by The Washington Times show that in 2000 and 2001, the commission, then led by Chairman Mary Frances Berry, paid $135,000 to the District-based firm McKinney & McDowell, now operating as McKinney & Associates, in an effort to help publicize reports that:

Accused the New York Police Department under the leadership of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of racial profiling.

Stated that voting problems in Florida in 2000 that turned the presidential election to George W. Bush “fell most harshly on the shoulders of African-Americans” and recommended litigation against numerous state officials. Most of those officials were Republicans.

The McKinney & McDowell contract “is absolutely an unauthorized expenditure,” said Mindy Barry, oversight counsel for the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.

“The way the commission got around it at the time was to say that [McKinney & McDowell] were not consultants but were contractors and service providers. But this is propaganda.”

Sources say the upcoming GAO report will address several problems with the agency’s contracting process as well as “problems in nonpayroll transactions … [and] checks with no support documentation.”

A GAO report released in November 2003 stated that the commission “lacks sufficient management control” in awarding contracts and gives orders orally, rather than in writing, as required by law. GAO officials also say commission staff withheld records of transactions.

The contract with McKinney & McDowell said services were to be provided to Ms. Berry and the commission staff.

“The commission did not have one point of view; it had two. And we couldn’t hire a public relations firm,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee who has been on the panel since January 2001. “Maybe if we had, we could have gotten our dissenting report more widely distributed.”

Several of the commissioners sitting at the time, including departed member Christopher Edley Jr., did not respond to interview requests. Ms. Berry could not be reached, and Gwen McKinney, head of the public relations firm, did not return calls.

Former Commissioner Cruz Reynoso, a Democratic appointee whose term expired in December, was on the panel during the McKinney agreement, but said he never saw the public relations firm’s contract.

“I understand that it is common for government agencies to hire outside PR firms,” he said. “What is not common is to hire folks who promote the view of that agency.”

He said the responsibility for hiring the McKinney firm fell on staff director Les Jin. Mr. Jin, who was replaced in December, did not return calls.

Government spending on outside public relations firms are under fire, prompted by the disclosure that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, via a contract with the public relations firm Ketchum Inc., was paid $240,000 to promote Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education initiative.

Congressional Democrats last month released a report that noted that spending on private public relations firms had doubled under Mr. Bush.


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