By Jerry Seper
A public interest law firm yesterday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Victoria Wilson, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, violated federal law in refusing to leave office to make room for a new Bush appointee.
The Landmark Legal Foundation, in a letter yesterday to Attorney General John Ashcroft, also requests that the department investigate whether commission Chairman Mary Frances Berry violated the law when she improperly supported Miss Wilson's refusal to vacate office.
"There's no such thing as squatter's rights to federal office," said Landmark President Mark R. Levin.
"When a term of office ends, the person holding that office is out, and Miss Wilson is no exception to the law. President Bush used his lawful authority to appoint her successor."
Miss Wilson was appointed Jan. 13, 2000, to the eight-member commission by President Clinton after Commissioner Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. died before completing his term of office.
Mr. Bush named Cleveland labor lawyer Peter N. Kirsanow to fill the unexpired term, which ended Nov. 29.
But Miss Wilson refused to leave office during a rancorous Dec. 7 hearing, despite the fact that her appointment certificate — signed by Mr. Clinton — noted that her term would end on the same day Judge Higginbotham's term expired.
Miss Berry vigorously objected to the Kirsanow appointment, saying federal law mandates that all commissioners are named to six-year terms.
She refused to seat Mr. Kirsanow during the meeting, although he sought to present his credentials and assume his post.
Last week, the Congressional Research Service said in a memo to the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, which is investigating the matter, that the commission's actions violated congressional intent.
The research service said that when Congress reauthorized the commission in 1994, it intended that commission members serve staggered terms so no single president could stack the panel with partisan appointees.
"More than half of the offices ultimately coming due in one year or in relatively close proximity would substantially defeat the purpose of the structural scheme to regularize the period of time for which commissioners serve," the memo said, concluding that a court likely would hold that the 1994 reauthorization did not undo the staggered-term requirement.
The memo said Mr. Kirsanow was entitled to the commission seat.
Mr. Levin said federal law requires that "whoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the United States or any department, agency or office thereof or in such pretended character demands or obtains any money, paper, document or thing of value, shall be fined or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."
Miss Berry, in refusing to seat Mr. Kirsanow, said the matter would have to be settled in court. Until then, she said she would refuse to acknowledge the appointment of Mr. Kirsanow to the commission.
She referred to Mr. Kirsanow during the Dec. 7 hearing as "some member of the audience" and said that by obeying the law as declared by the White House and the Justice Department the commission would lose its independence.
Miss Wilson said she told the White House personnel office at the time of her appointment that she intended to serve six years of her own, not leaving until 2006.
The Justice Department and White House have said that appointees to unexpired terms serve the duration of that term, which is then open to reappointment.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, Mr. Kirsanow, former chairman of the conservative group New Black Leadership, sat 10 feet from Miss Wilson in the first row of the crowded conference room. He initially cast votes when a motion was made, but they were ignored by Miss Berry.
During the Dec. 7 meeting, Mis