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STATE FACING UP TO BACKLOG OF BIAS CASES, MCCALL SAYS

The state Division of Human Rights has taken some steps -- but not enough -- to reduce its enormous case backlog of discrimination cases, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall says in a new report.

McCall said the agency needs to do more to address a backlog of about 9,600 complaints of housing, employment, age and other forms of discrimination.

"There seems to be progress, but it is slow at best," McCall said, releasing a follow-up report to an April 2000 audit that looked at the same problem. "Unfortunately for the thousands and thousands of people who are waiting to have their cases heard, a lot more work needs to be done."

McCall first audited the human rights agency last year, in response to an article in The Buffalo News about long delays in the adjudication of discrimination cases in Western New York. The agency often takes years, sometimes up to 10, to schedule hearings in the cases.

The April 2000 audit was sharply critical of the human rights agency. The follow-up report says state human rights officials have taken some steps, but have not yet developed a strategic plan to deal with the case backlog.

Things are so bogged down in the human rights agency that it has yet to give state auditors a copy of a $100,000 consultant's report on how to address the backlog, McCall's auditors said.

"The report was due in September 1999. . . . Records show that the consultants were paid fully by October 1999," McCall said.

Officials of the human rights agency responded by saying they are doing their best with limited manpower -- about 200 employees statewide -- and with more than 4,000 new complaints coming in each year.

"When Gov. (George E.) Pataki came into office in 1995, the previous administration left us with a backlog of 16,880 cases, and we've worked very hard to whittle that down," said Denise Ellison, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Mr. McCall knows that. He disregards or ignores the significant progress we've made."

McCall said the backlog was cut from 10,623 cases in June 1999 to 9,631 this past June. But the percentage of cases that are at least 360 days old has increased during the same period.

"(Nearly) 50 percent of the cases are now almost a year old," the comptroller said. "Behind all of these numbers are real people -- men and women who have complaints of being turned down for jobs, passed over for promotions -- even denied housing -- because they have a disability, or because of their ethnic background, or just because someone thinks they are too old. These are not just stacks of files. These are real people."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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