Government auditors are challenging claims and expenditures of nearly $2 million in federal grant and contract funds by a nonprofit group, PUSH-EXCEL, headed by Jesse L. Jackson.
In nine audits covering $4 million in grants and contracts to the Jackson organization in recent years, Department of Education auditors made an initial finding that nearly half of the money either was not spent in accord with federal grant regulations or was claimed without adequate documentation.
They recommended disallowing $737,000 and formally "questioned" another $1.1 million. Auditors recommend disallowing payments when they find that money has not been spent according to regulations. They question expenditures when there is not enough documentation that they were legitimate or were assigned to the proper projects.
Auditing experts cautioned that in many cases, organizations are able to come up with documentation or other evidence to show that challenged funds were spent properly, and large amounts initially disallowed or questioned then are allowed and paid.
Jackson said last night that he considers news of the audit "selective persecution," and he termed the differences "a dispute between auditors."
"We want it resolved. We'll resolve it in accord with the law," Jackson said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "In the final analysis, we'll do like everyone else. We'll pay the difference."
The investigations come at a time when the civil rights leader is within several weeks, associates said, of deciding whether to launch a campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
Jackson, 41, has said that one factor in his deliberations is the degree to which his independent style of operation would be affected by a presidential candidacy, including the presence of Secret Service agents and the need to file various reports.
Jackson said last night that scrutiny of PUSH is a "minimal" factor in any decision. "Even the worst of the reports indicates nothing illegal," he said. "Obviously there is a differrent quantity of baggage running as an official candidate . . . . One ought to carry the the least amount of baggage for the least amount of time."
Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., board chairman of Operation PUSH and also head of a committee that is exploring the viability of a Jackson presidential candidacy, said Jackson and the group have decided that increased scrutiny should not be a deterrent.
"I believe he feels confident that there is nothing of merit that anyone could raise or bring to light that in any way would be seemingly damaging to his personality or his campaign," Hatcher said of Jackson.
Many of the audited projects were federally funded efforts to improve student and parent attitudes toward education in black communities, such as one District of Columbia school project for $45,037 using community and parent volunteers and "peer counseling."
On that project, the audit report said, PUSH-EXCEL claimed salaries for three people while the contract called for only one position. The report said that the project also claimed outlays for photocopy supplies that were "not incurred."
Another similar project, involving a $656,000 federal outlay for a PUSH-EXCEL educational project in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Chicago, charged $5,258 for salaries of employes for the time they were attending the national convention of Operation PUSH, an affilitated organization, plus $12,980 for a Chicago community liaison employe who, according to the audit, devoted a substantial amount of his time to non-grant activities.
It also involved fees to a project director at a full-time rate at a time, the audit said, when that person was employed full-time at a university in Pennsylvania holding several jobs there.
Reports on other audits involving Education Department projects included many similar allegations.
Operation PUSH officials said yesterday that "we have nothing to hide" regarding operation of the entire "PUSH family": five separate organizations headquartered on Chicago's south side.
In addition to PUSH-EXCEL (an abbreviation for Push for Excellence), the organizations are People United to Serve Humanity, a holding corporation; Operation PUSH, a nonprofit but not tax-exempt civil rights and economic development organization; the PUSH Foundation and the PUSH International Trade Bureau, to which members donate $500 each.
Jackson is national president of Operation PUSH, co-chairman of PUSH-EXCEL and co-chairman of the trade bureau. He is a board member of the foundation and the holding company, PUSH officials said. His $50,000 salary is paid by Operaton PUSH, but he is allowed to retain all or part of the money he earns from speeches or personal appearances, they said.
All five PUSH-related groups have an annual budget of about $1.5 million and 40 to 45 employes. Jackson spends about 70 percent of his time traveling, and his expenses are paid either by major sponsors or by one of the PUSH groups.
PUSH-EXCEL was one of the organizations that received controversial last-minute funding from the Labor Department in the final hours of the Carter administraton.