From Capitol Hill Blue News - Oct 13, 1998

Civil rights commission in disarray

The Civil Rights Commission appears in "disarray," congressional auditors say in a report accusing the 40-year-old agency of lacking fiscal accountability, misplacing records and taking years longer than planned to finish projects.

Funding for the independent, bipartisan commission expired last September. And while Congress did not reauthorize the agency, it did appropriate $8.75 million to allow the panel finish its projects through Sept. 30.

In a review of the agency covering fiscal years 1993 through 1996, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative and auditing arm, found "management controls over its operations are weak and do not ensure that the commission is able to meet its statutory responsibility or its program objectives."

Specifically, the GAO said:
--Few of the agency's projects were bound by time lines and those that were often fell at least two years behind schedule. "Overall, projects took a long time to complete, generally four years or more."

--From 1993 through 1996, the commission completed five projects, deferred 10 and were working on seven others at the time of the review in 1996. The projects, which ranged from racial tensions in American communities to the enforcement of fair housing laws, accounted for only 10 percent of the agency's spending.

--Key records, including minutes of commission meetings and project files, were often "lost, misplaced or nonexistent."

--The commission failed to come up with key operational figures, such as the cost to run its regional offices.

The audit, which was released Wednesday, was requested by Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., in response to complaints about the commission's management.

The agency was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to investigate alleged violations of voting rights and to study the impact of federal civil rights laws and policies. Four of its eight commissioners are appointed by the president and two each by the Senate president and House speaker.

Commissioners responded to a draft of the GAO report in two separate letters.

In the first, four of the commissioners agreed with the report and thanked the GAO for its "thorough investigation regarding the management improvements needed."

The other four commissioners, including the panel's chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, and vice chairman, Cruz Reynoso, rejected the report as misleading, "short on necessary history, short on relevant context and short on substantiated facts."

Their letter also said that operational deficiencies cited by the GAO do not affect the commission's performance of its basic missions. Most of the government's findings were based on a lack of communication, commissioners wrote.

"The commission continues to promote the cause of civil rights zealously and honorably," the letter said. "Its work is made difficult, not only because it does not have adequate budget, staff and resources, but also because whatever position the commission takes on any one civil rights issue it is bound to offend one community or another."

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