USDA Action On Bias Complaints Is Criticized

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Government Accountability Office yesterday condemned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's approach to resolving hundreds of discrimination complaints brought by minority employees and black farmers, and urged Congress to consider appointing an oversight board to review civil rights concerns at the agency.

The report said the credibility of USDA efforts to resolve discrimination complaints "has and continues to be undermined by faulty reporting of data" and that "even such basic information as the number of discrimination complaints is subject to wide variation in . . . reports to the public and Congress."

The USDA's reports about minority participation in farm programs are equally unreliable, the GAO report said. The agency produced three reports to Congress on minority participation between 2003 and 2005, yet the agency did not know precisely the race, ethnicity or gender of the participants because workers relied solely on visual observation to determine ethnic origin.

The USDA's office of civil rights, which has 129 employees and a budget of $24 million, is responsible for handling complaints. But it has limited strategic planning and "does not address key steps needed to achieve its mission," the report said.

Margo M. McKay, assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, said the GAO report failed to acknowledge changes that were implemented in 2005. McKay said a new Internet-based system was installed to track and efficiently handle employee complaints.

"It's going to take a while for us to be able to generate . . . analyses, but it's light-years ahead of where we were," McKay said.

Black USDA employees have long complained of discrimination in hiring and promotions, and have deluged the agency with complaints. When Vernon Parker was assistant secretary for civil rights in 2005, the USDA submitted several assessments of its discrimination complaint backlog to Congress. The total number of complaints varied.

After McKay arrived in 2006, the agency submitted a 2007 report to Congress asserting that a backlog of 700 complaints had been reduced. According to the GAO report, McKay knew that was not the case.

"In fact, before the [USDA] made its report to the public in 2007, . . . officials were planning to hire additional attorneys to deal with the backlog of complaints," GAO said.

As the USDA struggled with complaints from inside its offices, minority and women farmers complained of being denied access to loans that were granted to white male farmers, and of being cut off from other farm programs.

In 1999, black farmers won a landmark discrimination suit against the USDA and applied for restitution under a consent decree. The USDA is fighting similar class actions filed by women, Hispanic and Native American farmers.

The USDA approved 15,400 claims filed before an October 1999 deadline, paying nearly $1 billion. But the agency declined more than 70,000 claims filed after the deadline, saying they were tardy. Farmers complained they were given no notice of the cutoff date.

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