The collected writings of James A. Gouryeb are instructive in understanding the ins and outs of compassion in an administration that took office committed to cutting budgets while retaining a "safety net" of vital social programs.
Gouryeb, 38, is the New Jersey state director of the Farmers Home Administration and oversees the housing, agricultural and community-development programs that for years have been important parts of that net.
But since the Reagan administration took office, the FmHA programs have become more controversial. Insisting that it is attempting to run the FmHA like a business, the administration has cut the agency's budget and tightened loan-management policies.
The National Rural Housing Coalition, however, contends that the FmHA programs have been gutted with little regard for their beleaguered beneficiaries, low-income citizens, marginal farmers and poor rural communities.
Enter James Gouryeb. He is from Brown Mills, N.J., and earned a degree in philosophy from Columbia University in 1973. He worked with a family construction business and then ran a jobs program for the poor for Burlington County, N.J. Then he caught the Reagan administration's eye.
Gouryeb said he simply filled out an application and got the job with "no political heavyweight" supporting him. He was cleared by Agriculture Secretary John R. Block and appointed to the New Jersey post in August, 1981. Almost immediately, he began peppering his subordinates with exhortations to improve performance, orders to shape up and inspirational messages, all aimed at reducing housing-loan delinquencies.
That, generally, has met with the approval of his boss, FmHA Administrator Charles W. Shuman, who said he was not familiar with most details of Gouryeb's work, but added, "I'm sure he knows the direction we want to go and that we want the programs managed on a businesslike basis, with compassion."
Shuman said that he thinks Gouryeb "has done some real good things . . . but there are problems there, like any other state, and as they are brought to my attention, I try to deal with them."
Excerpts from Gouryeb's memos to his troops follow.
Dec. 8, 1981
TO: All Employes, New Jersey FmHA.
Spectacular achievements are starting to become somewhat routine for the New Jersey Farmers Home Administration. That in and of itself is an incredibly telling statement. How vividly each of you undoubtedly recall those demoralizing days when the rest of the nation regarded the New Jersey FmHA as a delinquent's paradise. But by your ferocious and Olympian dedication, courage, intelligence and pride you have fought back the great delinquency tidal wave, and are now boldly searching the horizon for the promised land of FmHA supremacy.
To be Number 1, though, entails continual sacrifice and tremendous labors. To strive to be Number 1, furthermore, requires a titanic commitment to excellence.
Christmas shall soon be here. What makes this Christmas different from those in the past is that we no longer expect a lump of coal in our delinquency stocking. Fuel and electric bills are now expected to be paid after the monthly mortgage payment. And Santa, instead of saying HO HO to such payments, is telling everyone that, without a house, there can be no heat, no electric, no tree and no chimney to slide down.
Congratulations on another dazzling delinquency reduction performance! . . . . You have given me the most wonderful Christmas present of any state director. And for this I am humbly grateful.
Dec. 9, 1981.
TO: County Supervisor, Toms River, N.J.
Once upon a time, there was an FmHA county office located in Toms River, N.J. It was led by a brilliant, young county supervisor. He had magnificent lieutenants and heroic soldiers.
They defended a nation overrun by the Great Delinquency Horde . . . . The other armies of that nation sought peace through the paying of tribute. This tribute took the form of massive loan making.
Not waiting for reinforcements, the army of Toms River ferociously assaulted the bloated scourge of delinquency, shattering its forces with its highly disciplined and magnificently motivated troops. The shock of attack sent the delinquency rate reeling downward.
The day is nearing when New Jersey's low delinquency rate will be the envy of other states. And when that day comes, the Toms River county office can take great pride in the fact that it led the way.
Sept. 13, 1982.
TO: County Supervisor, Toms River, N.J.
Over the past three months, it has been noticed that the Toms River county office has processed few foreclosures.
This fact is somewhat puzzling. According to the August 581 report, nearly 40 Toms River accounts are more than 90 days past due . . . .
The general absence of Toms River foreclosure actions, though, requires some sort of explanation.
Therefore, the Toms River county supervisor will provide, three weeks from this date, the state director with a written analysis of why very few foreclosures have been undertaken.
An FmHA housing loan is a highly positive social instrument . . . . As stated on numerous prior occasions, an FmHA housing loan is not a grant.
When a loan recipient has clearly demonstrated an inability to successfully repay same, the Farmers Home . . . is legally bound to move resolutely to protect the government's investment. One vehicle--and it is only one of several--available to address severely delinquent accounts is foreclosure.
When, however, same is unavoidable, and hence necessary, this agency must immediately undertake same. The law and sound credit principles demand no less.
According to the August 581 report, there are still quite a few New Jersey housing loans in arrears 90 or more days. In general, such accounts are usually sufficiently delinquent to justify foreclosure.
Therefore, so as to liquidate this most serious of all delinquent accounts (viz., the "three monther"), the following is herewith directed:
Foreclosure steps are outlined and county offices are assigned monthly account liquidation quotas, even though Shuman denies that his agency sets quotas.
Jan. 25, 1983.
TO: State and county FmHA officials.
As for the bad news, every state's delinquency rate rose in January .
There is also cause to rejoice, for New Jersey's delinquency rise was restrained enough to give us the nation's LOWEST DELINQUENCY RATE. In other words, New Jersey no longer shares First Place with another state: New Jersey is NUMBER ONE.
The Mighty North Carolina, New Jersey's only real competitor, is throttling open its awesome servicing machine. North Carolina has every intention of regaining its lost servicing crown. And so there are no illusions or false sense of security, a very fierce period lies ahead.
After nearly 1 1/2 years of unparalleled effort, victory is ours. But to reach the summit and then to promptly slide off is an appallingly painful thought. What we have attained--after so much sacrifice, sweat and toil--shall not be relinquished.
Early in 1983, the responsibility for the FmHA's operations in the Virgin Islands was switched to Gouryeb.
Feb. 14, 1983
TO: Virgin Islands county supervisors
The present state of Virgin Islands' operations is shockingly appalling and revoltingly deficient . . . . Without reservation, the problem's sole source is the absolute absence--amongst all but one island employe--of professionalism, dedication, responsiveness, conscientiousness, seriousness, competence and integrity.
As a group, Virgin Islands FmHA employes are a disgrace to Farmers Home. Their collective performance has defiled every Farmers Home tradition and principle. Without question, Virgin Islands FmHA personnel have become an agency humiliation.
This state of affairs shall instantly end.
The memo bars any promotions, cancels all leaves, strips county supervisors of loan-making power, freezes FmHA monies, prohibits overtime, establishes a dress code and bans employes from contacting the national office or any other federal agency on the mainland.
Feb. 24, 1983.
TO: All employes, St. Thomas (V.I.) county office.
The state of affairs thereat is utterly disgraceful, disgusting and putrid. Without reservation, without hesitation, without even a scintilla of doubt, it is shockingly evident that the St. Thomas office is a wretched abomination and a loathsome humiliation.
Extremely valuable promissory notes were heaped together like garbage. Files and documents were strewn and piled about. Tracking systems were nonexistent. Signs of organization were absolutely lacking. Chaos and irresponsibility permeated the air and pervaded all.
The St. Thomas county office does not belong to Farmers Home. It has long since abandoned the FmHA's ship, and it is about to swirl down into an annihilating whirlpool.
St. Thomas FmHA employes resented the state director's Feb. 14, 1983, directive memorandum. By this memorandum, St. Thomas FmHA employes are on notice that--based upon initial field findings--their employment future is extraordinarily bleak . . . . By March 31, 1983, the St. Thomas office is to totally resemble--in every way--an FmHA county office. Anything short of that will be declared a direct violation of this order.
Gouryeb's memos to the Virgin Islands triggered this reaction.
Feb. 25, 1983
FROM: John R. Preston, St. Croix county supervisor
TO: State director Gouryeb
I protest the remarks you have made in your memo dated Feb. 14, 1983. Such accusations are completely false and without foundation. They are an insult to everyone in the Virgin Islands and represent slander in the most provocative manner . . . . I pray you will exorcise yourself in this vindictiveness for the good of the agency and write a letter of apology to all the individuals in the St. Croix and St. Thomas offices.
March 30, 1983
FROM: Charles W. Shuman, Administrator, FmHA, Washington
TO: All Virgin Islands employes
While I believe improvements can be made in our Virgin Islands operations, I do not agree with Mr. Gouryeb's assessment of FmHA Virgin Islands employes . . . . After reviewing this situation, I have decided to transfer responsibility for operations in the Virgin Islands to Mr. Roland Vautour, state director for Vermont and New Hampshire, effective immediately.
Gouryeb said he felt Shuman was "absolutely right" in that decision, but he never apologized to the Virgin Islands employes. "I was just trying to say that times are different now, trying to get their attention. They had a 40 percent delinquency rate down there," he said.
That, he added, was not unlike what he found in New Jersey. He said that FmHA borrowers were two and three years in arrears when he took office. "There was an issue of credibility," he said. "There was no servicing of some of these accounts whatsoever. Some of these people felt they didn't have to pay . . . . We were 47th in the nation in delinquencies when I came in; we're third now . . . . We found, too, that when we had to foreclose, it was absolutely a last resort."
FmHA records show it has foreclosure actions pending against about 800 New Jersey homeowners.