WASHINGTON — An angry Senate Aging Committee, exasperated over repeated delays in obtaining information about age discrimination cases, served a subpoena Wednesday on Clarence Thomas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The subpoena, a congressional device rarely used against government agencies or officials, marked an escalation in the increasingly bitter feud between the Senate committee and the commission, which oversees enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws.
EEOC chairman Thomas had previously acknowledged that his agency mistakenly allowed 900 age discrimination complaints against employers to lapse through a failure to meet deadlines for filing lawsuits.
'Making a Lot of Noise'
Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), Aging Committee chairman, said Wednesday, "I have to believe there are a lot more cases" where the EEOC failed to take timely action. Thomas "is making a lot of noise about being hurt personally and offended" by the Senate investigation, Melcher said. "That makes me feel he's been hiding quite a lot."
The subpoena requires Thomas to produce statistics from each of the 50 EEOC field offices on the number of age discrimination complaints received and the agency's action on these cases. It also asks for records dealing with cases in which no action was taken before the two-year deadline for filing a lawsuit had passed.
Thomas called the subpoena "totally unnecessary." For the last six months, he said in an interview, investigators from Melcher's committee have been given access to all EEOC files, "like someone plowing through your house."
"Everything they asked for, either we have given them, or are in the process of giving them, or else we don't have it" due to the limitations of the agency's computer system, he said.
The Aging Committee inquiry, which began in August, "started off on the wrong foot, and never got on the right foot, and a lot of it is a personal vendetta," Thomas said. "It led to bashing of the agency."
There are "insinuations we are liars and we are hiding something," Thomas said. "I have been informed my problem is that I have not been sufficiently humbled."
He said the EEOC has spent more than $300,000 in staff time trying to respond to the Aging Committee requests.
The subpoena orders Thomas to appear before the committee for a sworn deposition on March 11, to answer questions and supply documents dealing with age discrimination complaints filed from 1984 through 1987.
Approved by All Democrats
The subpoena was approved by all 10 committee Democrats and two of the nine Republicans. The other seven Republicans did not endorse the proposal but did not register dissent to it, Melcher's office said.
Thomas said he will comply with the subpoena.
"We're going to go back and box up all the things we've already given them" and deliver these documents and answers again, Thomas said in an interview.
He said much of the information sought by the Aging Committee was not easily obtainable because the EEOC does not have an effective centralized computer system.
Melcher said his patience had been exhausted in waiting for cooperation from the EEOC. After the staff began asking last year for information on age cases, Melcher said, "I was startled" to learn in January that the statute of limitations had expired on 900 cases without any EEOC action.
Thought Remark Offensive
"I told Chairman Thomas that was inexcusable," Melcher said. "He thought this remark was offensive, but I did not make it as sharp as I could have."
Thomas attributed the expired cases to employee errors and inefficiency in field offices. "I don't mind being criticized, but let it be constructive criticism," he said.
The congressional attacks on his agency are "ironic," Thomas said, because Congress last year cut from the EEOC proposed budget some $14 million needed for a central computer system.
"I've been trying to tell them for years we need to put in computer systems to find cases that might fall between the cracks," Thomas said.