GAO: Mismanagement Plagues U.S. Civil Rights Commission

A vote Friday to prevent commissioners from reviewing draft reports before they are posted on the Web site bears the markings of an ongoing controversy at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search).

The General Accounting Office concluded in a report released last month that lack of communications among board members along with inadequate financial oversight are two of the problems plaguing the USCCR.

"Commissioners lack the opportunity to review many of the reports and other products drafted by commission staff before products are released to the public, which serves to significantly reduce the opportunity for commissioners to help shape a report's findings, recommendations, and policy implications of civil rights issues," the report concluded more than a month before Friday's decision to post draft reports without comment from commission members.

"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," the investigative arm of Congress also wrote in its report.

"The report reaffirms my longstanding concerns," said Jennifer Braceras (search), a Republican commissioner appointed by President Bush in 2001 to serve on the controversial eight-member board. No more than half of the commissioners, evenly appointed by Congress and the president, can represent one political party.

In reviewing the report, the USCCR agreed with some of its findings, but called large parts of the report "inaccurate" and "erroneous."

In a 10-page letter to the GAO, Staff Director Les Jin wrote that the commission is "pleased that [the report] recognizes the positive aspects of the agency’s management processes," but is concerned about "errors, unsubstantiated allegations, and misinterpretations."

"The characterizations and assertions in GAO’s draft report are overstated and erroneous," he added in the Oct. 15 letter. The USCCR declined to comment beyond the statement.

But Braceras disagreed with the USCCR's response to the report and blamed Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry for the deep divisions among the board.

"The report is really quite temperate and the recommendations it makes are nonpartisan and really quite common sense, and I am really dumbfounded that the commission wouldn’t want to adopt the recommendations as a matter of good government," added Braceras, a professor of federal anti-discrimination law at Suffolk University Law School. 

Berry "is not really interested in good government. She is interested in power and control," she added.

The mission of the USCCR is to investigate complaints and serve as a national clearinghouse for information about discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, age, disability, or national origin.

But more often than not, commission meetings devolve into debates over how the organization is handling its mandate and whether commission members are equally informed of reports being released and activities planned.

The GAO report was requested by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who has sparred with the USCCR in the past.

"The persistent mismanagement of the commission has justifiably undermined public confidence in the commission's work," Chabot said in a statement after the report's release. "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. When will this embarrassment end?" 

Chabot spokesman Brian Griffith said that the report proves Chabot's concerns are well-founded. He said Chabot is reviewing the report and "there's a likelihood that there would be a [congressional] hearing" to follow up on its findings.

USCCR, in general, and Berry, in particular, have been the subject of a number of controversies.

In September, the commission sent out a press release complaining about the voting equipment that was to be used in the California recall election. The release bore the names of all eight commissioners, but three Republican-appointed commissioners -- Peter Kirsanow, Russell Redenbaugh and Abigail Thernstrom -- say they were neither consulted nor even aware of the release.

They followed the original release with a letter of their own that said, "We cannot associate ourselves with a statement made on our behalf without the dignity of notice or an opportunity to be heard."

Another controversy surrounded Berry's attempt to block Kirsanow, a Bush appointee, in favor of a Clinton appointee whose term had expired. A federal appeals court rejected Berry's argument last year.