An interim General Accounting Office report suggests that the administration is bending over backward to protect a group of private-sector advisers from federal conflict-of-interest laws, according to a House committee chairman.
"It seems very clear to me that great pains were taken to get around a federal law designed to protect the public from secret proceedings," said Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, who requested the GAO investigation into the operations of the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control.
" . . . There is no doubt in my mind that the organizational framework of the survey was very carefully constructed to circumvent requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act," Ford said in a statement released yesterday with the interim report.
The panel was created by President Reagan last June under the Federal Advisory Committee Act as part of his pledge to put the government on a more businesslike footing. The panel, funded by corporate contributions and headed by J. Peter Grace, chairman of W.R. Grace & Co., includes 150 executives from some of the nation's largest corporations and financial institutions.
The committee, in turn, supervises the activities of more than a thousand private businessmen in "task forces" assigned to look into the activities of specific agencies.
It is the membership of the task forces that most concerns Ford and other members of his committee. Officials with the private-sector panel have contended that the task force members are not subject to federal disclosure laws because they work, in effect, under contract to the private foundation that funds the panel, not the panel itself.
The Grace panel has refused to divulge the names of the task force members, but unpublished lists obtained by Ford's committee indicates that scores of them were assigned to look into the operations of agencies that regulate their businesses.
"What we have is 1,000 officials from corporations who paid their dues to join this exclusive club poking into every aspect of the government with impunity from federal laws, including conflict of interest," Ford said yesterday.
Felix E. Larkin, an associate of Grace, told the Post Office subcommittee on investigations last month that all 150 members of the executive committee of the advisory council had submitted financial information to the White House for conflict-of-interest clearance.
But none of the task force members filed similar information, although they reportedly have been asked to sign statements promising to disqualify themselves in the event of a conflict.
The private-sector committee itself has been a source of increasing controversy on Capitol Hill. Some members of Congress suspect that the panel has stepped beyond its advisory role and is delving into policy matters, and there is increasing concern that members of the committee or its task forces might have access to confidential information of benefit to their businesses.
The GAO interim report released yesterday by Ford indicated that the committee was considering additional measures to protect against unauthorized disclosure of government information, as well as potential conflicts of interest.
But the refusal of the panel to disclose the task force members who have access to that information infuriates some members of Congress.
"It is inconceivable that, in this century, an advisory arm of the federal government will find it necessary to hide itself from public scrutiny," Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) said in denouncing the panel last week.