SEVERE DEBTS. PUSH leaders say group's financial squeeze is easing

Heavy debts. Misspent funds. These are some of the charges that have surfaced recently about PUSH, Jesse Jackson's civil rights organization. But the group's leaders insist that the financial squeeze is easing.

``Things are certainly looking better in terms of where we were a year ago,'' says the Rev. Otis Moss, board chairman of Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). If current trends continue, the group may retire its debt in about one year.

Concerns about PUSH finances surfaced because of reports late last week that two PUSH organizations - PUSH for Excellence and Operation PUSH - are heavily in debt. According to an audited annual report for 1985, PUSH for Excellence owed more than $1 million in federal grant money, which federal agencies say the group can't account for. The original PUSH group - Operation PUSH - owed more than $325,000. The high debts prompted the auditing firm Tony H. Smith Inc. in Cleveland to question whether either group would continue as a viable concern unless it substantially reduced its debts and increased revenues.

The auditor, however, said he issued the warning because of auditing responsibilities rather than any real concerns about the two organizations. ``I think both organizations will survive,'' he says.

The debts are nothing new, according to current and former Operation PUSH officers. ``The organization has always been short of money,'' says Leon Davis, the first national executive director of Operation PUSH back in 1972. ``They've never had their books in order.''

Over the years, Operation PUSH and PUSH for Excellence have not complied with state laws calling for annual financial reports that are independently audited. In 1984, Operation PUSH submitted six years of unaudited reports. The latest financial report, submitted last week, marks the first audited report that the nonprofit group has submitted.

According to Operation PUSH officials, the $325,000 debt has since been halved by some dramatic cost-cutting measures.

``The staff is nowhere near as large as it once was,'' the Rev. Mr. Moss says. It's ``what you might call a serious austerity move, but at the same time [we're] seeking to remain relevant.''

Declining revenues may be the biggest challenge for the PUSH organizations. With the Rev. Mr. Jackson engaged in his own probable run for president, revenues are down from earlier years. Another big problem, Moss says, is an economic downturn among its usual contributors. ``It's not surprising that civil rights, human rights organizations would have difficulties raising funds,'' he says. ``People who were in a contributing mode are now in a need mode.''

The unaudited reports show that Operation PUSH incurred severe debts after a peak year in 1981, when it had revenues of $1.2 million. The current debt situation should become clearer in about a month, when an audit of the 1986 report is expected to be completed.

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