USDA Is Called Lax on Bias

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nearly a decade after the Agriculture Department agreed to settle a discrimination suit brought by black farmers, one of the largest payouts in U.S. history at almost $1 billion so far, the department has yet to develop a system to adequately address hundreds of other bias complaints from farmers and its own employees, the Government Accountability Office said this week.

In blunt testimony before a House subcommittee this week, Lisa Shames, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, said the department cannot prove that it has reduced its mountainous backlog of discrimination complaints and that its claims to the contrary cannot be trusted.

"At a basic level, the credibility of USDA's efforts has been and continues to be undermined by . . . faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints and disparities in . . . data," Shames said. "Even such basic information as the number of complaints is subject to wide variation in . . . reports to the public and the Congress."

Shames said the GAO is preparing an audit of the USDA that will be released in fall. The report is expected to support her testimony that, in addition to failing to reduce the complaint backlog and adequately track cases, the agency has not diversified the field offices where discrimination is often reported. The agency does not have a uniform method of determining the race of farmers and other clients in order to study possible patterns of racial and ethnic bias.

"The fact of the matter is that discrimination is going on," said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the government oversight subcommittee before which Shames and USDA officials testified. "Even the staff members of USDA are saying it is, but if they say something, there's retaliation."

The USDA has been a frequent target of discrimination complaints for decades, resulting in taxpayer payouts in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The department is currently fending off class-action lawsuits from Latino, American Indian and women farmers similar to the claim filed by black farmers, who so far have been paid $972 million, according to the GAO.

Shames's testimony echoed criticism from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reprehended the agency for taking an average of two years past the allotted time to process employee discrimination complaints, and the No Fear Coalition, a whistle-blower protection group, which issued a report card that gave the USDA a failing grade for the way it addresses employee concerns.

Margo M. McKay, USDA assistant secretary for civil rights, defended the agency, saying Shames's testimony was full of inaccuracies. "It's unfortunate that they put this out in the public without going through their normal process, without issuing a preliminary report."

McKay said Shames did not give the USDA time to respond. Given time, McKay said, she would have said that the USDA has various methods of reporting data related to the claims, which is why the number of resolved cases sometimes differs from month to month. "You're comparing apples with oranges," she said. The USDA is currently training employees to use a computer system that tracks cases.

"We have the same frustration and impatience" about the lack of progress, McKay said. "You do what you can do."

The civil rights division that McKay leads was formed five years ago, with a staff of 129 and a budget of $24 million. Her promises of progress are similar to those of Vernon Parker, who led the office before her and resigned in 2006 for personal reasons.

"It's been going on for a long time, for many decades, in terms of failure to address civil rights issues at USDA," Shames said. "Any claims coming out of this office need to be considered closely. These disparities in the numbers -- they do not have the management structure in place to be able to track these cases."

As an example, Shames questioned the veracity of a July 2007 report from McKay's office saying that a backlog of about 690 discrimination complaints had been reduced. At the time, Shames said in testimony, McKay and other officials "were well aware they had not succeeded in preventing future backlogs -- they had another backlog on hand, and this time the backlog had surged to an even higher level of 885 complaints."

As the office issued the report about reducing the backlog, "officials were in the midst of planning to hire attorneys to address the backlog . . ., including some . . . dating from the early 2000s that had not been resolved."

The GAO and the USDA Office of the Inspector General have submitted recommendations on how to address problems at least seven times in past years, Shames said. "They ignored many recommendations," she said.

"We think civil rights is going backwards at the department," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "They can't tell us what's going on with the cases. There's no commitment whatsoever to rights. The GAO testimony supports what we've been saying for the past couple of years."

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