Q&A with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A11

When Tom Vilsack became head of the Agriculture Department last year, he faced a backlog of 11,000 civil rights complaints and several unresolved class-action lawsuits from minority farmers and ranchers.

The largest case, known as Pigford, remains open. It originally was settled in 1999 for $1 billion after 16,000 black farmers said they had been unfairly denied farm loans. Thousands of black farmers later complained that they were unaware of the suit, and in 2008 it was reopened. Some farmers have said the Obama administration is not moving fast enough, and on Monday they protested outside the USDA headquarters.

Vilsack said in an interview Friday that he is close to a resolution and is working hard to transform the department's handling of civil rights.

Q You've announced a "new civil rights era" for the USDA and made civil rights one of the signature issues of your administration. Why are these issues important to you?

When this department was established in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, he referred to it as the people's department. In order to be consistent with that legacy, it's necessary that our programs and our approach reflect an appreciation for everyone's rights. We took a look at [these] prior issues and are in the process of trying to address each of them.

The USDA is also being sued by Hispanic farmers and female farmers who allege discriminatory practices. What are the biggest challenges facing the USDA in terms of resolving civil rights cases and enforcing civil rights laws?

There are three different areas of concerns. One area is the pending lawsuits against the department from farmers and ranchers who feel that they have been mistreated by the department. We've been very, very focused on trying to get lawsuits moving towards a resolution. We are aggressively reaching out to [plaintiffs to] begin negotiations and discussions to try to get these cases resolved as fairly and appropriately as possible. We [also] have ongoing program complaints from people who are currently doing business with USDA. Then, within the 113,000 people that work for USDA, there are obviously concerns expressed from time to time by employees.

What is your approach to those three areas and what are your goals?

We have begun a systematic process of reviewing the over 11,000 complaints that had been filed during the previous eight years and determined that there were approximately 3,800 matters that required additional review. We hired additional inspectors, investigators and decision-makers to try to figure out precisely how many of those complaints were justified. [About 7,200 cases did not require additional review.] In terms of the complaints that had merit, the statue of limitations has run out for many and we are asking Congress to grant extensions in those cases. Finally, we've begun a very extensive process to reduce our equal-opportunity complaints [within USDA], and we've seen a reduction in those complaints with better [civil rights] training.

Over the years, black farmers began referring to the USDA as the 'last plantation.' . . . Many of their complaints were directed at their local farm service offices, where regional officials had the power to deny farm operating loans to certain groups. . . . How do you change the culture of such a large, disparate agency?

We've tasked our administrative department with . . . changing the culture at USDA, and it's not just focused on civil rights. It's focused on making sure that all employees are valued and making sure that all employees appreciate not only their responsibilities but their opportunities at USDA.

We've had civil rights training in a number of our state offices, both for the farm agency offices and rural development state offices. We've also created a more robust compliance review schedule so that we can take a look at data, take a look at information, take a look at trends to determine whether we are making progress.

In terms of our external programs, we have commissioned an independent study and evaluation to take a hard look at what we're doing. The programming side [of USDA] involves not just programs for farmers, but also rural development programs for developing housing. We're in the process of making sure we're sensitive [to civil rights issues] in those two areas.

We have hired the Jackson Lewis Corporate Diversity Counseling group, under the leadership of Weldon Latham, to take a hard look at what we're doing to see if there are ways we can make improvements and to look at program delivery in a number of states where we have had issues in the past.

How close are you to a settlement on the outstanding [Pigford] claims?

In terms of Pigford, the president authorized us to talk about a settlement fund in excess of $1.1 billion, and we have been working with the Department of Justice on that. They, in turn, have been working with plaintiff's lawyers to try to determine how those resources could be allocated. I think we're very, very close to a resolution of that case. We are within a matter of days or perhaps even hours in getting this thing finally resolved.

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