Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland and two subordinates were cited yesterday for civil contempt for past failures to notify migrant farm workers in Virginia that they might be eligible for food stamps.
U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner indicated in a ruling that he wanted the officials to pay the expenses of lawyers who went to court to win the rights for several migrants on the Eastern Shore.
Agriculture's general counsel, Dan Marcus, who said the department denies it had been in contempt, said he did not consider the judge's words as formally ordering the governments to pay the fees.
Accusing the officials of giving routine matters priority over a June 1978 court order to notify the migrants of their eligibility for retroactive benefits, Warriner charged them with showing "indifference, carelessness and apathy."
Federal officials, Warriner added, were no less obligated to obey the law than "more common folks who support them with their taxes."
The matter stemmed from a 1977 lawsuit filed by eight migrant farm workers on behalf of hundreds of others, contending they had not been notified of their eligibility for retroactive benefits.
After Warriner issued his 1978 order, C. Cooper Geraty, a lawyer for the eight migrants, went back to court last September to assert that government efforts were not yet adequate in the truck farming regions of Northampton and Accomack counties.
Agriculture officials said then that about 74 migrants had received benefits since a program was begun last June to comply with the order. About 400 migrants were eligible, officials said.
"The delay in implementing this is disgraceful and you know it," Warriner told Agricultur officials. He asked lawyers for the migrants to suggest sanctions against top Agriculture officials.
A special prosecutor was named to bring criminal contempt charges against two middle-level Agriculture officials. Although the two -- not invovled in yesterday's ruling -- were found innocent by U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke, he called them negligent in complying with the court order.
In addition to Bergland, yesterday's ruling cited Lewis B. Strauss, former administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, and Strauss' successor, Robert Greenstein,
Warriner said that because there is evidence the defendants are now making efforts to comply, the court would impose no penalties on the case.
Warriner said "it is appropriate that the defendants should" compensate the special prosecutor, however, as well as Geraty and the other American Civil Liberties Union lawyers who represented the migrants. "Such a compensatory fine," he added, would help encourage respect for and compliance with court orders.
Although no decision has been made, Marcus said the Agriculture Department could appeal any order to pay and could also appeal the contempt finding. In addition, Marcus said, "it's not the end of the world for us to be held in contempt if the judge finds us now in compliance."