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House Committee Holds Hearing On Alleged O.C.R. Misconduct

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WASHINGTON--Employees in one of the Education Department's regional offices were occasionally directed by their supervisors to persuade persons filing civil-rights complaints against school districts to drop their charges, witnesses testifying at a Congressional oversight hearing last week revealed.

Evidence presented at the hearing, called to investigate the backdating of civil-rights documents by regional Education Department employees, also showed that a federal employees'-union official in Boston had lodged the complaint that led to an investigation into the matter by the department's inspector general. (See Education Week, April 8, 1987.)

Although the inspector general's investigation had begun the day before Alicia Coro, the department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights, claimed to have uncovered the backdating, she continued to assert at the hearing that she had discovered the problem.

Representative Ted Weiss, Democrat of New York and chairman of a House Government Operations subcommittee, called last week's hearing after two separate Education Department investigations found that employees in 6 of the department's 10 regional offices had backdated documents to make it appear as if they had met deadlines specified in a federal court order.

The investigations also revealed that employees in six offices had improperly suspended the processing of civil-rights complaints, in violation of court orders in a 17-year-old lawsuit against the government, now known as Adams v. Bennett.

The Adams case, filed by civil-rights groups in an effort to speed the federal government's handling of discrimination complaints, sets specific timetables that O.C.R. must meet in each stage of its investigations.

Criminal Prosecution Urged

Representative Weiss said in an interview after the hearing that his panel this summer will issue a follow-up report on the mishandling of documents by department employees.

He also said that any employees who are found to have falsified federal documents should be prosecuted under the U.S. criminal code.

"How else can we underscore that the law also applies to federal employees?'' he asked.

Ms. Coro testified that she has forwarded all information concerning "irregularities'' in the handling of civil-rights complaints to the department's inspector general, and that she has no say in whether any additional employees will be investigated or referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.

The Justice Department has thus far declined to prosecute any of the regional office employees implicated in the matter.

Education Department officials confirmed that disciplinary actions are continuing against some employees of the Boston O.C.R. office, but they refused to provide details.

As of last week, the Boston office is the only one where top officials have been found to have directed their employees to handle investigations in a manner that violates the Adams order.

Of the five highest-ranking officials in the Boston office at the time the improprieties occurred, only one is now employed there, Ms. Coro said.

The Boston office's director retired shortly before the investigation began, one manager was fired, one was reassigned to another position, and one was transferred to the central O.C.R. office and subsequently resigned, she said.

The department's inspector general is investigating allegations that officials in the San Francisco O.C.R. office also instructed their employees to backdate documents, a Congressional source said last week.

Officials in the inspector general's office could not be reached late last week, and it is their policy not to comment on the nature of ongoing investigations.

Last week's hearing did not clarify whether officials in the central O.C.R. office knew of or directed the mishandling of civil-rights complaints.

Several employees from the Boston office interviewed during the inspector general's investigation said they or their superiors had discussed the backdating with officials from O.C.R. headquarters, according to the inspector general's report.

However, Ms. Coro said all of her senior staff members have denied having any knowledge of the backdating prior to the start of the probes.

Union Whistleblower

Rance O'Quinn, an equal-opportunity specialist in the Boston office and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3893, said at the hearing last week that he had filed a complaint about the backdating with the inspector general's fraud hot line nearly a month before Ms. Coro said she discovered the problem.

The improprieties surfaced, he said, during formal grievance proceedings filed by several employees who had received low job-performance ratings from their supervisors for failing to meet internal deadlines for processing complaints.

Employees in the Boston office had an unusually high number of poor performance ratings, he said, which adversely affected their scheduled salary increases and, in some cases, put them in danger of losing their jobs.

At the same time, he said, the managers in the Boston office were receiving bonuses for meeting the Adams deadlines, which led the union to probe allegations of backdating in Boston and other regional offices.

"That's when the union decided to let the inspector general in on the secret,'' he said.

Mr. O'Quinn also testified at the hearing that he had been "pressured'' by Louis F. Simonini, the Boston office's director of elementary and secondary education, to get in touch with the plaintiff in a case he was investigating in order to persuade her to withdraw her complaint.

The plaintiff did not mind dropping her complaint, he said, because she had received help from the O.C.R. in finding a suitable placement for her child in another school.

The inspector general's report also contained allegations by one Boston employee that she had been similarly ordered to persuade plaintiffs to drop their complaints in two cases because they could not be resolved within the timetables set out in the Adams order.

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