WASHINGTON — The staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights resigned Friday, the latest loss for an agency whose budget and staff are shrinking.
J. Al Latham Jr. said he is leaving because Congress, shortly before adjourning, cut the commission's budget by more than a third and sharply restricted the ways in which the panel may spend the remaining money.
"I don't believe that I can accomplish what I personally would want to with the kinds of slashed funding and restrictions that Congress placed on the commission," Latham said. "I think this seriously jeopardizes a lot of the fine research this agency was doing."
In recent months, the commission's staff has shrunk from 190 to less than 100, as employees have taken early retirement or scrambled for new jobs after congressional moves to abolish the agency. The commission plans layoffs to reduce the staff to 45.
Latham blamed civil rights groups for having "hogtied" the commission. "They wanted to silence this commission," he said.
But Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, called Latham's comments "patently absurd. Huge bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and House repudiated the reconstituted Civil Rights Commission because it had abandoned its independence, defied its statutory mandate to oversee the federal government and had become a morass of mismanagement."
The departure of Latham, an outspoken advocate for the policies of Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., follows the resignation of Vice Chairman Morris B. Abram, a respected conservative.
The 29-year-old commission, which began under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, won wide acclaim for its reports on decades of civil rights strife. But it has been beset by internal warfare since 1983, when President Reagan tried to fire some liberal commissioners, leading to a compromise in which half the members of an expanded panel were named by the President and half by Congress.
The commission's conservative majority is led by Pendleton, a black conservative from San Diego who has attacked civil rights leaders as "new racists" and dismissed comparable-worth plans as a "Looney Tunes" idea.
Commission meetings have often degenerated into shouting matches as liberal members accused Pendleton and Latham of being mouthpieces for the Administration.
The biggest setback came last spring when the General Accounting Office accused the commission of widespread mismanagement, including the hiring of a large number of political appointees, consultants and temporary employees instead of career federal workers.
As part of the fiscal 1987 omnibus spending bill, Congress reduced the commission's budget from $12 million to $7.5 million.