Deeply in the red, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted yesterday to conduct an audit of how it has spent its $9 million annual budget over the past several years.
The meeting came a day after commission Staff Director Kenneth L. Marcus told a congressional subcommittee that the agency had failed to pay $75,000 in rent last year and that employees who won an equal opportunity complaint against the agency had not received the $188,000 partial payment owed them.
Marcus had more bad news yesterday, saying that the commission was more than likely underfunding its employee benefits package, and that budget shortfalls would force the board to consider a significant number of layoffs as it undertakes reforms recommended by the Government Accountability Office.
Commissioners said they had been kept in the dark on financial problems by former staff director Les Jin and the panel's former chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry. Two commissioners, Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds and Peter N. Kirsanow, asked Marcus whether he had uncovered any evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing. Marcus said he had not.
But commissioners were upset that the agency's acting budget director, George Harbison, had not seen its ledger of income and expenses for the past year. It was last known to be in Jin's possession, Harbison said.
"If a private company didn't have a ledger, then somebody goes to jail," Reynolds said.
The news of possible layoffs swept through the small audience, most commission employees.
"There's a lot of concern, because we don't know what they are going to do, what's going to happen to the commission, what's going to happen to employees and their careers," said Vanessa Williamson, vice president of the union local that represents commission workers.
Partisan wrangling that has plagued the commission's proceedings since the early 1980s also arose again yesterday, when members discussed a study that would examine federal contracts to businesses owned by minorities and women.
The study, approved in early 2004, was to examine whether the government was including firms owned by both genders and all races in the contract awards. But Marcus said that he had changed the study's parameters without the board's knowledge to reflect only concerns that the government use strict race-neutral measures when awarding contracts.
Michael Yaki, a liberal commissioner recently appointed to the board, charged that such an action clearly violated attempts to achieve a new bipartisan spirit of the board. Commissioner Jennifer Braceras, a conservative, said she had asked Marcus to add the language on race-neutral contracting because the study approved under Berry seemed one-sided. But Braceras also criticized Marcus, saying it was her intention to address both liberal and conservative concerns about minority contracting.
The study has already been distributed to several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Education and State and the Small Business Administration. If commissioners were to amend it, staff members said, it might not be finished before the end of the year as required by the commission's mandate.
Commissioner Russell G. Redenbaugh resigned from the panel Wednesday, effective April 1, citing many of the problems raised by the commission yesterday. His imminent departure appeared to have an immediate impact, prompting commissioners to spend most of the meeting discussing the changes he said were needed and ignoring their monthly agenda.
"I am not going to rest a day until I get an inspector general to look at our budget," Kirsanow said.