Congressman Questions Berry's Authority

Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry might have won the first round in a legal battle involving her refusal to seat a Bush appointee on her panel, but at least one congressman isn't letting her off so easily.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, demanded in a Feb. 14 missive to the commission that the chairwoman provide documentation and written responses to a laundry list of questions dealing with her agency's budget, employee expenses and the shredding of federal documents under her watch.

He also expressed dismay over Berry's recent subpoena of several Bush cabinent members to a February hearing on environmental justice without a full commission vote.

"Subpoenaing cabinet members is an unprecedented and unnecessary move when expert testimony from the EPA and other officials would suffice," Chabot said in his letter.

He asked Berry to respond no later than 5 p.m. Friday to a number of questions regarding her management of the commission, which a 1997 Government Accounting Office report called "an agency in disarray."

Berry missed the deadline but her spokeswoman indicated that the chairwoman was working quickly to respond to a series of questions that add up to nothing more than a low blow.

"This is a non-story," she said.

But Chabot, working off a General Accounting Office Report entitled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Agency Lacks Basic Management Controls, said he is concerned that the agency has not provided basic costs and information on various department positions nor had it provided a depiction of its organizational structure, the basic accounting of its $9 million in annual funding, or a complete list of all projects conducted by the commission.

"I am deeply troubled by reports of the commission's activities that continue to undermine public confidence in the commission," Chabot said in his letter.

Chabot also asked Berry, who has been on the commission for 20 years and chairwoman since 1993, why she had hired an outside public relations firm when the agency had its own public affairs unit. He also asked about reports that the commission may have shredded documents that are supposed to be preserved under federal law.

Berry, an Independent who has often made headlines throughout her career on the commission, got the better of the Bush Administration earlier this month when a judge ruled that Berry ally Victoria Wilson is entitled to a full six-year term on the panel, leaving Bush appointee Peter Kirsanow out in the cold.

Berry had complained that the Justice Department lawsuit against Wilson was an infringement of the commission's independence. She declared the Feb. 4 ruling for Wilson a victory for the panel's autonomy.

The Justice Department is appealing the decision, and Chabot said that he's "confident that the appeals court will overturn the ruling and grant Commissioner Kirsanow his rightful seat on the commission."

Berry, who now enjoys the strength and influence of a Democratic majority on a panel that has no enforcement powers, would lose her majority if Kirsanow, a conservative attorney, were to replace Wilson.

Under Berry's tutelage, the commission investigated voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election in Florida and issued a report in the fall of 2001 saying minority rights had been violated. The commission plans to question Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – brother of the president – this year.

Currently, the commission is also investigating environmental justice, including whether low-income neighborhoods suffer under current environmental policies.

Berry had subpoenaed EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and Interior Secretary Gail Norton to appear before the commission, but each sent underlings to speak on behalf of their agencies at a Feb. 8 hearing.