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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is coming under criticism for allegedly failing to cooperate in efforts to prosecute acts of discrimination and threats of violence against Arabs, Muslims and others in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the criticism apparently grows, at least in part, out of lingering bitterness over the closely contested Florida presidential election last year. The flap centers on the toll-free hot line set up after Sept. 11 by the Washington, D.C.-based commission to enable the public to report discrimination and “protect [the] rights” of Arabs, Muslims and others. The U.S. Department of Justice, along with two influential Republican lawmakers, is accusing the commission of refusing to forward to law enforcement officials the reports it has collected of alleged hate crimes and other unlawful discrimination. In an Oct. 9 letter to commission staff director Les Jin, Assistant Attorney General for civil rights Ralph F. Boyd Jr. criticized the commission’s explanation for refusing to pass along the information. “As grounds for this refusal, you stated that some people alleging discrimination, violence or threats of violence would not be comfortable speaking with the FBI,” Boyd wrote. “I acknowledged that this was theoretically possible, but unlikely because most such people would not be inclined to report instances of discrimination to any government hot line.” Boyd called the commission’s position “particularly troubling in view of the seriousness and urgency of these matters.” “Simply put, your refusal prevents the Department of Justice from investigating or otherwise following up these reports in order to ensure that people who need protecting are, in fact, protected, and have their rights vindicated,” Boyd said. In a testy retort, Jin wrote back to Boyd that his eight-member commission refers complaints to the Department of Justice by giving hot line callers “the telephone number of the appropriate law enforcement agency,” Jin wrote. Jin also insisted that Boyd and his staff were misinformed about how the hot line operates. Jin said calls are “summarized on a log sheet,” but not recorded or transcribed. The commission and the Justice Department remain at loggerheads, and Dan Nelson, a Justice Department spokesman, says that creates a potentially dangerous situation for the public. “They’re still not cooperating,” Nelson says. “If they continue to refuse to give us this information, there could be some acts of ethnically motivated violence that would go without law enforcement follow up.” Jin and Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the commission, declined to comment, according to their spokeswoman at a Washington, D.C., public relations firm. In the first month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the letter said, the Civil Rights Division and the FBI began more than 130 criminal investigations and brought criminal complaints or indictments in three states. As of this week, there are about 200 criminal civil rights investigations under way, and seven cases under federal prosecution, says Nelson. The scrap between the two agencies is rippling through Republican circles in Washington, where bitterness toward longtime commission chairwoman Berry runs deep. Republicans accused the liberal Berry of muzzling conservative dissent on her panel during the drafting and dissemination of the commission’s report in June which concluded that many minority voters had been disenfranchised during Florida’s presidential election. Two weeks ago, Rep. F. James Sensebrenner Jr., R-Wis., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee which oversees the commission, and judiciary subcommittee chairman Sen. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, lambasted the commission in a letter to President George W. Bush. They accused the panel of conduct “that seriously undermines the credibility of the commission’s work.” The senators, writing as Bush prepares to appoint a new commission member, accused Berry of refusing to send the Justice Department “even basic information” about alleged hate crimes and other unlawful discrimination received through the hot line. They also mocked Berry’s remarks at the commission’s Oct. 12 meeting. She argued that the hot line was never presented to the public “as a problem-solving mechanism,” but is merely a way for people to vent their gripes. According to a transcript, Berry said, “People around the country have expressed their gratitude, so I think we ought to be proud that we’re doing this rather than worrying about whether it’s helping anybody.” Wrote Sensebrenner and Chabot, “We do not believe that the commission, or any government agency, exists to instill pride in its officials without regard to whether it is providing a benefit to the public who pays for it.”

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