WASHINGTON – Russell Redenbaugh (search), the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search) member who unexpectedly resigned this week, said he isn’t sure the panel even has a purpose anymore, adding that its very design is resistant to accountability and reform.
"It’s not the people, it’s the missing process, the missing accountability," Redenbaugh told FOXNews.com on Wednesday, a day after he sent a resignation letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Republicans in Congress appointed him to the commission post 15 years ago.
"Previously, I was blind to the fact that we have a structural problem here," he said. "If you don’t report to anybody, you aren’t accountable to anybody. The commission can’t act any better than a trust fund casualty. The money is going to come anyway, so it’s no surprise the kids turn out that way."
Redenbaugh is referring to what some commissioners call a fiscal "hole," created by 12 years of near-secret bookkeeping. No independent audit has ever been conducted on the $9 million-a-year government agency.
Former chairwoman Mary Frances Berry (search), who finished her term in December and left the panel after 25 years, has been largely blamed by Redenbaugh, an independent who votes with the Republicans, and other Republican appointees for the financial morass. Democrats on the panel have staunchly defended Berry, saying she has been unfairly maligned by Republicans.
Besides her controversial management style, Republicans blame Berry for creating a partisan atmosphere on the commission that prevented constructive dialogue and internal reforms, Redenbaugh said in his resignation letter.
"I served under bad leadership and public scandal," he wrote. "I endured excessive partisanship, railed against slanted reports, and exposed the commission’s unaccountability to the taxpayer. I remained on the commission often in dissent, but always committed to reform."
Despite Berry’s departure, Redenbaugh said he believes the simplest of changes — like bringing on an inspector general to oversee the panel or pursuing independent audits — weren't a priority for the panel, now under a Republican chairman.
"One, there was no urgency, and two, there was opposition," he said, without naming which members of the panel, made up of two Democrats, four Republicans and two independents, were against the changes.
Redenbaugh’s fellow conservatives on the commission as well as new chairman Gerald Reynolds (search) disagree with Redenbaugh’s perspective, and say they were surprised at his abrupt departure.
"It’s totally incomprehensible, a thousand percent incomprehensible. We have been doing nothing but putting reforms into place," said Abigail Thernstrom (search), the other independent commissioner who also votes with Republicans. She has worked with Redenbaugh over the last several years and said she was upset that he didn't call to "give me a heads-up on this."
Republican appointee Peter Kirsanow (search), whose placement on the panel Berry actually tried to thwart three years ago, said he was working closely with Redenbaugh on the reform proposals and thought Redenbaugh acted "prematurely" by thinking no one had an interest in advancing reform.
"Everything Russell says makes good sense. He doesn’t grandstand, he does not engage in power plays or theatrics of any nature, so when he does something like this it’s pretty eye-opening," said Kirsanow. "But I believe he is acting prematurely. These reforms are well on their way to being implemented."
Two commissioners — Ashley Taylor (search), a Republican; and Michael Yaki (search), a Democrat — are new to the panel this year. Yaki joined new staff director Ken Marcus and Redenbaugh on Thursday to testify before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution about the commission’s fiscal situation and its planned reforms.
The subcommittee has attempted via hearings to take the commission to task after a 2003 GAO report described the commission as hobbled by fiscal mismanagement and bad communication between commissioners. The report was rebuffed by Les Jin (search), former staff director for the commission, as "overstated and erroneous."
A Commission That Has Run Its Course?
Yaki testified that he took the GAO report seriously and supported swift action on fiscal reforms. But, he added, he does not want to belittle the mission of the panel, signaling disagreement with Redenbaugh, who suggests that the commission may have run its course.
"The Jim Crow (search) era may have ended, but anyone who believes that we have become a nation completely without malice towards people of color, towards new immigrants, towards those who believe or worship differently is, with all due respect, deliberately hiding their head in the proverbial sand," Yaki told the subcommittee. "And that is why I am here today … to say that while the business of this committee with respect to ensuring fiscal responsibility is important, it is equally important that the business of the commission be allowed to continue."
But Redenbaugh said the panel, created in 1959 to protect voting rights at the very start of the civil rights movement, can no longer offer the kind of remedies necessary for today’s civil rights issues. It has no enforcement powers and can only draft reports and subpoena witnesses to attend hearings, he noted.
Agencies are in place to hear civil rights complaints and act on them at every level of government, and myriad private interests are directed at helping close the gaps in minority education and income, he said.
"You cannot imagine the tremendous success that we the country have had in the last 40 years," he said. "Take out a clean sheet of paper — a vote to close the civil rights commission is not a vote against civil rights," he said.
But Democrats say Redenbaugh is a typical conservative who never liked the commission.
"This has been the Republican line for a long time, and the money mismanagement has been a point that people have raised, but no one has proven anything to the level of serious malfeasance that they’re talking about," said Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute (search) at the University of Maryland.
Walters said the attacks on Berry are retribution for reports she led that were critical of the 2000 presidential election and the Bush administration’s enforcement of civil rights laws.
Reynolds, who so far has been called a "conciliator" by some of his fellow commissioners, said he knows he is leading a commission rife with partisan blood and agreed a serious discussion about the purpose and goals of the agency is necessary.
He said he also understands Redenbaugh’s frustrations. But he isn’t willing to concede that reforms are unwanted or that the mission of the commission had been altogether fulfilled.
"The problems we are wrestling with did not happen overnight and we are not going to resolve these issues in three months," Reynolds told FOXNews.com. "I understand his frustration and all I ask of the public and Congress frustrated with these issues is to give us time."