Vilsack calls for new civil rights era at USDA
By Larry Dreiling
In a sweeping repudiation of the Bush administration's actions toward civil rights within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, toward both employees and constituents, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has called for what he said is a new civil rights era for USDA.
During a news conference with members of the association of North American Agricultural Journalists, Vilsack announced the release of a memorandum to all USDA employees showing his intent "to take definitive action to improve USDA's record on civil rights and to move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider."
Since 2000, more than 14,000 civil rights complaints have been filed at USDA. Approximately 3,000 of these complaints remain to be processed, and questions continue to be raised about USDA's handling of complaints.
These complaints have been made not only by USDA employees over hiring practices and actions in the workplace, but by constituents attempting to use USDA services. African American producers, primarily those in the southeast, have leveled many of the outside constituent complaints.
Because of the backlog of complaints, Vilsack issued what he said is a multi-faceted memorandum to include a complete review of programs to ensure that all USDA programs are available to all who qualify.
"To be successful, all USDA employees must be committed to making USDA a model in the federal government for respecting the civil rights of its employees and constituents. As Secretary, I will accept nothing less," Vilsack said. "USDA has taken steps to address the civil rights challenges that it faces.
"I want to acknowledge and applaud those employees across USDA who have worked hard to improve the department's civil rights record. But we need to do better on these efforts and empower USDA employees to move USDA into this new era on civil rights."
This memorandum outlines Vilsack's initial steps to change the direction of equal employment opportunity, civil rights, and program delivery in USDA by designing a comprehensive approach to ensure fair treatment of all employees and applicants and improve program delivery to every person.
In response to the economic challenges facing producers, Vilsack said he has used his existing authority to temporarily suspend all of the approximately 630 foreclosures within the Farm Service Agency's farm loan program for approximately 90 days. This time will also afford USDA officials the opportunity to review loans involving possible discriminatory conduct.
Vilsack has also contacted officials at the U.S. Department of Justice about exercising its authority to review existing litigation of about 1,300 of these direct operating loans that are in the judicial process toward foreclosure.
The assistant secretary of agriculture for civil rights will place top priority on the processing of complaints facing the statute of limitations in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) so that constituents have access to due process under the ECOA.
Also, to address outstanding issues related to claims not previously adjudicated in the case by African American producers versus USDA (better known as the Pigford litigation) that are currently pending in federal court, USDA is in consultation with the Department of Justice to determine how such claims may be resolved fairly and expeditiously.
The suit claimed USDA had discriminated against African American producers because of race and failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997. The deadline for submitting a claim as a class member was Sept. 12, 2000. Many have voiced concern over the structure of the settlement agreement, the large number of applicants who filed late, and reported deficiencies in representation by class counsel.
In a statement, Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a group working to end racial discrimination toward African American producers, said Vilsack's actions were "the right action to take; in fact, it is the moral thing to do."
Under the Bush administration, Paige said, his group requested a moratorium on foreclosures that African American producers were experiencing, which included even some successful claimants in the Pigford litigation. The Bush administration denied their request. In the meantime, foreclosures have gone forward even though a review of appropriate debt relief in the lawsuit is still being conducted.
"The history of civil rights at USDA has been appalling, but what we are witnessing today with the Obama administration's USDA is the most hopeful we have seen in the country's history, Paige said. "Throughout the USDA's long history, from 1862 to 2009, we have never seen an agriculture secretary prioritize civil rights like this. We look forward to the implementation of Vilsack's plans and his next phase of finally ensuring equity at the USDA for all of our citizens."
As part of that action, the Vilsack memo also orders the assistant secretary of agriculture for administration to publish a Request for Proposals to obtain an independent external analysis of program delivery in USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Rural Development (RD) field offices.
"The analysis will provide specific recommendations and methodologies to ensure that programs are delivered equitably and that access is afforded to all constituents, with particular emphasis on socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and other constituents. While this study will apply to these three agencies, the results will also impact all USDA agencies as necessary," the memo said.
"While there is emphasis on some of these items in FSA, NRCS, and RD, I want to be clear that this memorandum applies to all of USDA, and my expectation is that all agencies will cooperate in this effort and follow this new direction. It is essential that all agencies demonstrate their commitment to these goals."
Vilsack's commitment to civil rights within USDA appears strong toward its employees as well. The memo orders the assistant secretary for civil rights to review the organization and roles of USDA's Office of Civil Rights and ensure that appropriate emphasis and staffing are placed on enforcement of equal employment opportunity and civil rights law regarding employment and program delivery.
"These are just the first actions in a continuing effort to ensure that the civil rights of USDA constituents and employees are respected and protected. This is a new day for equal employment opportunity, program delivery, and civil rights in USDA," Vilsack's memo concludes.
"I intend to lead the department in correcting its past errors, learning from its mistakes, and moving forward to a new era of equitable service and access for all. With this effort and with each USDA employee taking individual responsibility, we can and will transform USDA into a model organization."
The amount of agricultural land owned by African American producers has declined from a high of 15 million acres in 1910 to a little over 3 million acres today. Paige said this could mean an end to what he believes is discrimination, including lack of credit opportunities or access to programs, for minorities and women at the USDA's Farm Service Agency offices across the country and in other USDA agencies.
"This time it looks to be a different and new era at the USDA," Paige said. "The 'People's Department,' which is what its creator, President Abraham Lincoln, called the U.S. Department of Agriculture, might actually become a department for the people. I applaud the secretary's efforts."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.