For Godsakes, One Helluva Mess At The United States Commission On International Religious Freedom

May 14, 2012

Logo of the United States Commission on Intern...

Logo of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alas, we wake up this morning with JP Morgan on the defensive about a $2 billion hedge gone awry.  Then we have Greece threatening to take down what used to be called Western Civilization.  Folks are likely frantic at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup,Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.  Fingers are getting stuck in leaks.  Backs are pressed against the doors in response to the battering rams of market pressures.  Perhaps some divine intervention would help?

Lucky for us in the states, we have the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom ("USCIRF"). What's the USCIRF?  According to the organization's website

1.    What is the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and how was it created?

Congress created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).  Established as an independent, bipartisan, federal government entity, USCIRF monitors the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

These recommendations are formally presented through USCIRF's Annual Report. The 2010 report covers 28 countries.  Country chapters begin with a one-page overview of USCIRF's findings, the reasons for the country's designation by USCIRF, and priority recommendations for action.  Each chapter documents events that took place over the reporting period, discusses relevant legal and human rights issues, emphasizes important elements of the bilateral relationship with the U.S., and details recommendations that would promote freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief as a more integral part of U.S. policy.  USCIRF's annual report also includes chapters on, and recommendations for U.S. policy concerning, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and U.S. refugee and asylum policy.

2.    Who comprises the Commission and how are Commissioners selected?

USCIRF is composed of nine private sector commissioners who volunteer their time in support of USCIRF's mandate, and the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who is a non-voting member.  Commissioners are appointed by the President and Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate.  USCIRF is a congressionally created entity, not a non-governmental organization, interest group or advocacy organization. . .

3.    What is the difference between USCIRF and the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom?

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity, while the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) - also established under IRFA-is part of the U.S. State Department.  Both USCIRF and the State Department release annual reports on international religious freedom, but each has different purposes. The State Department's report documents religious freedom violations in every country in the world.  USCIRF's Annual Report, by statute, recommends countries to be designated as "countries of particular concern" which the Executive Branch must consider.  The report also examines select countries, and while also documenting abuses, makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of government.  USCIRF's report also comments on the effectiveness of the State Department's efforts to promote international religious freedom. . .

A Bit Of Sarcasm (bordering on big government blasphemy?)

Wonderful . . . so lemme see if I got this.

In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which called for the creation of a commission. Okay, that much I get. Our useless Congress found time to pass an act that created yet another in an endless line of commissions.  And just what was the mission-critical purpose (see. . . even I can use bureaucratic doublespeak), of USCIRF?  Oh, Congress thought it was urgent that we had a commission monitoring religious freedom around the world.

Here we go again with more taxpayer funded nonsense - and don't start with the argument that USCIRF is supposedly composed of volunteer commissioners: Nothing, absolutely nothing, created by Congress is tax free. For starters, these honorary commissions always manage to employ paid staff and always manage to run up expenses.

Now, talking about mission-critical policies and effective pathways for channeling core contingency models for impactfulness, Congress mandated that USCIRF provide policy recommendations. Whoa, now there's a valuable Washington, DC byproduct: policy recommendations.  And these recommendations don't just get telephoned over to the Priesdient, Secretary of State, and Congress but are printed as part of an official Annual Report. As if there aren't enough annual reports from commissions floating around the nation's capitol?

Also, for good measure, we have the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom on this USCIRF, but only as a non-voting member. I mean, gee, god forbid that the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom had a voting role on the USCIRF, which prepares a formal annual report filled with mere recommendations. Now that would be an earth shattering development, right?

Oh, and, by the way, while we're piling on this silliness, don't confuse the USCIRF with the Office of International Religious Freedom ("IRF") because the latter is not a Congressional-created volunteer commission but an actual office at the U.S. State Department.  Of course both the USCIRF and the IRF issue annual reports on international religious freedom but, as noted on the USCIRF's website, "each has different purposes."  What's the different purposes for the USCIRF and the IRF  annual reports? Glad you asked. The USCIRF report must recommend "countries of particular concern" that the Executive Branch must consider.

I dunno about you but I'm sleeping a whole hell of a lot better at night knowing that Congress created a commission filled with volunteer commissioners to prepare an annual report that recommends things about religious freedom to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress, and, now here's the guts of it all, the President has to actually sit down and consider the recommendations from this commission about "countries of particular concern." Now there's an action plan: consider recommendations.

A Thief In The Night

All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Carmelita Hines, 48, of Waldorf, MD, the office operations manager for USCIRF from 2003 until 2011.  Among other things, Hines managed the processing, tracking, and paying of the commission's expenses and other finances. Sadly, she didn't turn out to be the right person for the job. On February 28, 2012, Hines pled guilty  in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to a charge of wire fraud.

From 2007 until 2011, Hines repeatedly used credit card accounts in the name of the commission and in her own name, on behalf of USCIRF, to embezzle $217,074. She charged  $146,008 in personal expenses for such things as gift cards, computer equipment, automobile GPS systems, an iPod Nano, gasoline, cosmetics, movie tickets, investment in a "get-rich-quick" scheme, and other items. On top of those expense items, she made $71,066 in cash withdrawals for her personal benefit.  Given her oversight role at USCIRF, Hines was able to conceal her embezzlement and fraud by, among other things, altering credit card statements and wrongly certifying documents.

Hines faced  a statutory maximum of 20 years of incarceration.  As part of her plea agreement, Hines agreed to a money judgment of at least $217,074.

On May 11, 2012, Hines was sentenced to a 20-month prison term, three-years supervised release, and 200 hourse of community service. The Court futher ordered  Hines to pay $217,074 in restitution and $217,074 in forfeiture. Upon completion of her prison term, Hines will be placed on three years of supervised release. During that time, she must perform 200 hours of community service.

Bill Singer's Comment

Thou Shalt Not Steal: that's one of the big ones in the Ten Commandments.  Literally carved in stone.  Something like number seven or eight, I think.  It's certainly before the not coveting thy neighbor's ox.

Sort of sad that a employee of a religious commission appointed by Congress disregarded such a basic tenet of faith.  Maybe USCIRF should hire a consultant to conduct a series of ethical training seminars for its staff?  Now there's a really edgy idea for Washington, DC!  Why not hire an outside consultant to investigate ethical lapses at some agency, commission, or department?

On the other hand, if you really want to think outside the box, why don't we simply abolish most of these idiotic organizations that suck the dollars out of our pockets?  After all, can't the private sector create some panel to issue the same annual report?  Oh, you're right, I'm being far too sensible here.

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