Boycotting Republicans Refused Teleconference at Commission

Two Republican members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who are boycotting a field hearing in Delaware Friday said they were prevented from teleconferencing into the panel's discussion from the office in Washington, D.C.

According to commissioners Abigail Thernstrom and Peter N. Kirsanow, they went to the commission offices "ready, willing and able" to participate with the panel meeting taking place in Wilmington, Del., Friday morning. They were told that no telephone hook-ups between the sites had been established, despite hook-ups for staff and commissioners for previous out-of-town meetings in Miami and Detroit.

Nathea Lee, a spokeswoman for the panel, expressed confusion as to why the members, who had publicly stated in the last few weeks that they were boycotting the meeting, suddenly wanted to participate. She said the lack of a telephone hook-up was not a deliberate attempt to block their access, but up until now, the panel didn't think anyone would need it.

"Why didn't they go to Wilmington?" she asked. "I'm confused as to why they just didn't go to the meeting to begin with. This just fuels the idea that the commission doesn't get along."

The four Republican members of the now equally-divided commission said they were boycotting Friday's monthly meeting because they believe the panel's controversial chairwoman is trying to hijack the meetings by holding them out of town.

Thernstrom told Thursday that she and Kirsanow would teleconference into the meeting to hear the testimony from regional and community participants, but not for any votes, leaving the commission without a quorum.

They contend that a rare, bipartisan decision was made at a May meeting to have hook-ups available for members who wanted to participate via speakerphone during out-of-town trips.

The assistant staff director on duty at the offices Friday did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

Commissioner Russell Redenbaugh said Thursday that he and the three other Republican commissioners would not be traveling to Wilmington, about two hours away from the nation's capital because they never got a chance to vote on the measure. He said Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, a Democrat, is trying to make meetings more difficult to attend because she resents the loss of her control.

"It's very clear that she's thwarting the democratic process here," complained Redenbaugh, whose seat was vacant for six months before Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., finally reappointed him in July. His return to the committee brought the once Democrat-dominated panel to a 4-4 split.

Thernstrom said Berry and her staff "don't want the Washington-based media around or the House Oversight Committee around," referring to the spate of bad publicity surrounding the commission this year due to Berry's reluctance to accept the appointment of Kirsanow until a judge forced her hand in a ruling last spring.

In April, the commission was the target of a congressional oversight hearing about whether the panel's leadership systematically squashes dissent, mismanages its budget and pushes the Democratic agenda.

Last month, the commission held a field hearing in Detroit, for what the staff called a forum on discrimination with the strong Arab-American community there. This month, it was meeting with state advisory committee officials from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware on regional racial issues. At the same time, they were to listen to concerns from a panel of community members.

Lee said members who suggested that Berry was diverting the panel on these trips were flat-out wrong, that the panel voted in the spring to conduct meetings "on the ground" and that members who planned to boycott were just hurting themselves.

"This is something that commissioners agreed to in May," said Lee, who works for McKinney and Associates, the private firm that handles public relations for the commission. "The commissioners are free to raise whatever issue they want at the meeting; when they're not there they won't be able to raise their issues."

(The hiring of Lee's firm was also a source of congressional consternation this year, which staff director Les Jin defended by saying the $180,000 fee was money well spent even though the commission has its own internal public affairs department.)

Berry and Vice Chair Cruz Reynoso did not return calls for comment.

Redenbaugh and Thernstrom complained that meetings "in the field" were sparsely attended, and that the members were only notified a month in advance where and when they would be held. They were just told that the October meeting is to be held in Jackson, Miss., they said.

"They aren't the meetings that allow us to do the work our statute compels us to do," said Redenbaugh. "Sure, it's more fun go around and talk to people, do a Bill Clinton, feeling everyone's pain. You don't have to prepare or study, just show up. I don't think we should spend our time doing that."

Republican members said the panel voted in May to take the commission out on the road throughout the year, but it was never established how many times, where or when.

"No one told us why were going to Wilmington. All they said was [we] were going to Wilmington because the chairwoman and staff director said we were going," Redenbaugh said.

He believes that if the same vote was taken today, "it would not get a majority," particularly since Republican members were in a 4-3 minority in May. The commission vote to hold field hearings was a 4-3 split down party lines.

Lee said members should not fear any neglect of the commission's official business, which was being taken care of during the early part of Friday's Wilmington meeting. As for the notification, she said: "There is no conspiracy to keep Republicans out of the loop. The commissioners get a month's notice on where the meetings will be held. The panel gives them as much advance notice as possible."

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission was established in 1959 by the Eisenhower administration to protect the voting rights of blacks. While it has a $9 million annual budget, the panel has no enforcement powers. Instead, it has the authority to call hearings and subpoena witnesses, hear discrimination complaints and publish reports. It meets 11 times a year.

So far this year, the commission has traveled to Florida twice to hear complaints about alleged racial discrimination in the election system, to Detroit and now to Wilmington, at a hefty price tag, say Republican members.

"We've got a fiduciary responsibility to Congress," Thernstrom said. "It is extremely expensive having the staff running around like this."