Vilsack vows to implement fixes over discrimination at USDA


U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tours the Gordon Wassenaar farm on Tuesday, April 19, 2011, in Prairie City, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that his agency would quickly adopt most of the recommendations contained in a two year study that looked at USDA’s history of discrimination and its ongoing civil rights failings.

The recommendations range from making the department’s rural development programs more accessible to women to appointing a “chief diversity officer” in each of the agency’s state offices.

The $8 million assessment by an outside group was spurred by a promise from the Obama administration to bring “cultural transformation” to a department that has been guilty of some of the government’s most egregious cases of discrimination.

“There is a massive effort within USDA to change the culture,” Vilsack said in an interview. “There is a real commitment from the top down.”

The study, which officials described as voluminous, was not distributed. Among its more than 200 recommendations, which were released Tuesday, were suggestions that the agency’s chief diversity officer monitor hiring, that farm service officials be required to “thoroughly” explain reasons for denying loans to minorities and women, and that the USDA mount public relations efforts to change the agency’s reputation by emphasizing its focus on diversity.

The study by the Jackson Lewis consulting firm dug into divisions within the department, which has been accused of discrimination ranging from denying minorities access to farm programs to refusing promotions for female middle-managers. Tens of thousands of minority and female farmers and ranchers have filed and won civil rights settlements against the USDA, which also has faced thousands of discrimination complaints from its employees.

“They have let down minorities and women. What our report demonstrates is that the trend can be reversed,” said Weldon Latham, the attorney who led the study — which included more than 2,000 interviews inside and outside the agency.

In April 2009, Vilsack announced a “New Civil Rights Era for USDA” and began tackling the backlog of 11,000 equal employment opportunity complaints facing the department. He also placed a priority on closing decades-old discrimination claims by Hispanic, female, black and Native American farmers. Settlements have been offered in all of the cases and the number of pending equal employment opportunity complaints is down to 461, the lowest since the department began keeping track, according to agency officials.

“We are aggressively going into communities, working with community building organizations to teach people how to access USDA programs,” Vilsack said.

Still, the department faces many critics — both internally and externally. The issue came to national attention last year when Shirley Sherrod, then an official at the department, was fired by Vilsack for allegedly making racially discriminatory comments. Further vetting found that Sherrod’s words were taken out of context, and she pointed to existing civil rights violations at USDA.

More recently, federal personnel complaints have been filed against senior USDA officials alleging age and gender bias and political favoritism. Chris Mather, the department’s former communications director, and other officials in her office faced at least nine such complaints before she left last month to work for Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel.

Mather disputed the allegations, in which employees claim that promotions went only to staffers under the age of 30 or those who had worked for the Democratic Party. Before she left the office, Mather said she was making changes to improve operations and morale. Two of the complaints have been dismissed and two have been settled, according to Vilsack.

In addition, Hispanic and female farmers have complained that the settlement they were offered is less than the nearly $2 billion that black and Native American farmers received.

“There is clearly more that needs to be done,” said Stephen Hill, attorney for Hispanic farmers who filed suit against USDA.

Vilsack said the settlement amounts differ because a legal ruling awarded class certification to black and Native American farmers but not to women and Hispanic farmers.

Joe D. Gebhardt, a civil rights attorney who has brought cases against USDA since the 1980s, said he believes the agency's willingness to settle discrimination cases fairly has begun to wane.

Gebhardt said that after the fall of 2009, “USDA went back to its old methods of looking at and settling cases, which is to start with the viewpoint that the minorities are wrong and the whites are right.”

Vilsack, who has declared “zero tolerance” for discrimination, disagrees. “We are really focused on inclusion and access,” he said. “At the end of it, what we hope to be able to say is USDA programs are more accepting of diversity, more inclusive and certainly far more accessible than they have been in the past.”

Lupe Garcia, a 67-year-old cotton farmer in Las Cruces, N.M., has his doubts.

“I wish it was that way,” said Garcia, one of the Hispanic farmers who have filed suit. “It sounds good, but there are still people out there from the old system that they need to weed out.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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