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Investigators Charge Funds, Contracts Mishandled by Rights Panel

By Alina Tugend — April 02, 1986 5 min read


Federal auditors last week sharply criticized the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for its “almost nonexistent” financial record-keeping and “indications of irregularities” in its use of outside consultants.

The charges were included in a report to a House panel by the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of the Congress.

The G.A.O. audit also questioned some of the commission’s travel practices and the size of the salaries paid to its chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. and his special assistant, Sydney I. Novell. The report maintains that they have received nearly full-time pay for what the G.A .O. said “were thought” to be part-time jobs.

The G.A.O. conceded that the salary payments-calculated on a per diem basis-were not illegal and did not violate the commission’s policies.

“The civil-rights commission is throwing away taxpayers’ money on self-promoting and wasteful items, as is fully documented in this report,” said Representative Patricia Shroeder of Colorado, a member of the subcommittee that held a hearing on the audit. “How can we explain to our constituents the fact that we give this sleazy outfit $12 million?”

But Mr. Pendleton dismissed the investigation as a “politically motivated witch hunt.”

“They don’t like the message, so they’re trying to kill the messenger,” he said last week. “This is really interference with the commission’s independence under the guise of oversight.”

Democrats’ Request

The investigation, which examined the commission’s operations since 1983, was requested last year by Representatives Don Edwards, Augustus F. Hawkins, and Matthew G. Martinez of California and Representative Schroeder, all of whom are Democrats. Mr. Edwards is chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil rights, which has oversight authority over the commission.

The commission, established 28 years ago, has often delved into education issues as part of its role as an independent fact-finding agency authorized to issue advisory reports to the President and the Congress.

Since the commission was reconstituted in 1983 and expanded from six to eight members—half appointed by the President and half by Congressional leaders—it has been viewed by civil-rights activists as increasingly conservative and supportive of Reagan Administration policies.

Records ‘Almost Nonexistent’

In testimony before the subcommittee last week, William J . Anderson, director of the general-government division of the G .A .O., charged that the commission’s personnel files were incomplete and conflicting and that its budget records were “almost nonexistent.” Compared with other federal agencies, he added, the commission’s record-keeping was “very poor.”

The G.A.O. audit found “indications of irregularities” in 31 out of 41 consultant appointments during the three-year period. The report states that none of the personnel files for the 31 appointments contained the statement of duties and responsibilities required by the federal Office of Personnel Management, and that “at least five of the consultants appeared to be performing operating duties, such as managing a commission project or supervising career employees. “

“This use of consultants is contrary to O.P.M. instructions,” the report notes.

Travel Questions

The audit also charges that private sources-including the Shell Oil Company and the Phil Donahue television program, Mr. Anderson said-paid for travel by some commission members and employees. The officials were not entitled to accept travel fees, except from nonprofit agencies, the report states.

J. Al Latham Jr., the commission’s staff director, said the commission is not a regulatory body, and thus there is “no question of a conflict of interest” in its travel practices.

“When the chairman is asked to speak somewhere, he might allow his expenses to be picked up, which is perfectly lawful,” he said. “The G.A.O. is wrong.”

The G.A.O. report also notes that Mr. Pendleton has engaged in lobbying efforts, particularly by speaking out against a Congressional bill that would restore four major civil-rights laws. Such statements, the report I charges, appear “to represent the type of remarks the restrictions on lobbying by government officials attempt to limit.”

Mr. Latham argued, however, that “this commission is in the business of stating positions on Congressional issues.”

Chariman’s Salary

On the subject of Mr. Pendleton’s salary, the report notes that the chairman billed the commission a total of$188,OOO for 706 days of commission work over the past three years-twice as much as any of the other commissioners. Last year, for example, he collected $67,344.

The chairman’s special assistant, Ms. Novell, was paid a total of about $100,000 for 639 days of work over the same period.

The report found that none of the commissioners—including Mr. Pendleton—who filed financial-disclosure statements relied on the commission as a sole source of income. The auditors said that “in fact, in no case was their commission salary greater than 50 percent of their total reported income.”

Mr. Pendleton noted that the commission has no policy on how many days a commissioner may work.

“If the G.A.O. keeps doing things like this, you work a lot,” he said. He also said that much of his time is spent traveling here from his home in San Diego.

Mr. Anderson told the subcommittee that the Small Business Administration is conducting a separate investigation of certain business dealings of Mr. Pendleton and Ms. Novell.

Decline in Reports

Among the G.A.O.'S other findings:

  • The number of reports from the commission’s state advisory committees has declined substantially, from 36 in 1983 to 3 in 1984 and 2 in 1985.
  • The commission has reduced the representation of women and members of minority groups on the state committees. Some 72 percent of the committee chairmen are white, compared with 29 percent previously, and 92 percent are male, up from 61 percent earlier.

The G.A.O. will continue its investigation, turning its focus to the nature of the commission’s mission and whether it is being fulfilled, Mr. Anderson said. At the request of the Republicans on the subcommittee, the G.A .O. will also conduct an audit of the commission’s activities from 1978 to 1983 to provide a comparison with the current audit.

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1986 edition of Education Week


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