Leaders of Civil Rights Panel Threaten GOP Appointees

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The two liberal leaders of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights accused their four Republican-appointed colleagues of misusing their offices and disrespecting the panel in a 36-page document sent Friday to President Bush and members of Congress.

Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry and Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso drafted the letter, including seven corresponding exhibits, after growing frustrated with what they termed a "dereliction of duty" by the Republican appointees.

"Collectively and individually, they have consistently contravened established policies, procedures, and traditions of the commission," said Reynoso, who cited absences from meetings and the use of commission letterhead as the primary offenses.

The four commissioners -- Republicans Jennifer C. Braceras, Peter N. Kirsanow, Abigail Thernstrom and independent Russell G. Redenbaugh -- immediately dismissed the report. They promised to issue a formal response of their own shortly.

"I'm a big devotee of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and I would recommend that this particular segment be submitted to him because I think the audience would find it very entertaining," Kirsanow said after listening to Reynoso read the letter.

The document begins by criticizing the commissioners for missing meetings or participating by telephone. The Republican appointees, who questioned the accuracy of the figures, said many of the absences occurred during out-of-town sessions held throughout the country since 2001.

Still, Democrat Commissioner Christopher Edley Jr., had more absences than two Republican commissioners and just as many as a third commissioner. According to the document, Thernstrom tops the list with five absences, followed by Edley and Redenbaugh with four.

The other exhibits criticize Republican appointees for using their commission titles when speaking to the press or issuing press statements. Berry and Reynoso claim it's against commission policy for anyone but the chairwoman to comment publicly.

"The four appointees have repeatedly failed to abide by the commission's administrative instructions, which provide that the chairperson is the spokesperson for the agency, and require coordination of press activities through the agency's public affairs unit," they wrote.

Use of commission letterhead is repeatedly cited and letters by the commissioners or their staff assistants are attached. None of the letters suggest they are official commission policy and each of the press statements is clearly labeled as a message of only certain commissioners.

After the meeting, Reynoso told CNSNews.com he couldn't put up with his Republican-appointed colleagues any longer. He cited a contentious encounter after the commission's May 17 meeting as the breaking point.

It was at that meeting that Republicans planned to raise two contentious issues, including the Senate's judicial "Memogate" controversy. Berry, however, adjourned the meeting when the four commissioners didn't arrive on time. When the Republican appointees asked to reconvene moments later, Reynoso became angry and called the commissioners "disgraceful."

"They've treated this like a legislative body where they're the dissenters who disagree with everything instead of a collegial body that's supposed to work together and try to reach recommendations for the president and Congress," Reynoso told CNSNews.com Friday.

Redenbaugh later responded, "He seems to feel that any disagreement is inappropriate."

Kirsanow also said it was ridiculous to suggest that commissioners shouldn't offer dissenting opinions. In fact, he said a discussion of education reform between Thernstrom and Berry that took place at Friday's meeting was exactly the type of dialogue the Republican appointees have always sought, but never before had.

The other two commissioners, both Democrat appointees, declined to comment about the letter. Elsie M. Meeks said she wanted to reserve judgment until she was able to read it, while Edley said he didn't have the time to grant an interview.

See Earlier Story:
Civil Rights Commissioner Scuttles Talk of 'Memogate' Probe
(May 17, 2004)

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