A new controversy among Agriculture Department bureaucrats over civil rights enforcement has prompted a House Judiciary subcommittee to reopen an oversight investigation that led to hearings and heavy criticism of USDA in 1984.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) has informed USDA that his civil and constitutional rights subcommmittee intends to review "a long history of continuing noncompliance with USDA civil rights requirements" by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), whose civil rights policies affect 7000 employes.
The internal dispute involves the refusal of APHIS officials to respond to a review last fall by USDA equal-opportunity specialists, who outlined a series of deficiencies in enforcement of civil rights and equal opportunity laws at APHIS. The agency was to have responded by Feb. 13.
John J. Franke Jr., assistant USDA secretary for administration, said last week that he had ordered APHIS to drop its resistance and respond with a plan for correcting the problems outlined by the review.
"Any agency perceived to be wrong had damned well better respond quickly," Franke said. "APHIS has not been as timely as other agencies and we have insisted that they be timely. Then, if there is a disagreement, it has to come to me to be settled."
Larry B. Slagle, a deputy administrator of APHIS, said in an interview that his agency will respond by April 1. He said he would not debate contents of the review, but denied that he or APHIS was carrying out discriminatory policies as the review suggested.
Another element in the dispute is an attempt by APHIS to fire a black employe, Vertis Stovall Jr., who took part in the review and was critical of his agency's failure to comply with civil rights requirements.
Stovall, accused of plagiarism and of impeding government efficiency, agreed to resign his $37,000-a-year job if APHIS dropped the charges. He subsequently filed a discrimination complaint and withdrew his resignation. APHIS reacted by putting Stovall on administrative leave with pay on Feb. 26, with stipulations that he said were "something akin to house arrest."
Stovall was accused in December of copying from a commercial publication a list of black colleges and universities that he had been assigned to compile as a recruitment aid for APHIS. Stovall did not deny that the list was copied but said that it was done at the direction and insistence of his supervisors, who raised no questions or objections during the project. The charge of impeding government efficiency concerned a $633 overtime payment to a clerk who typed the list.
Stovall said his troubles began months earlier when he complained that Reuben Romero, head of equal employment programs at APHIS, was ignoring departmental requirements.
After Stovall repudiated the resignation agreement that he and Slagle had signed, APHIS reinstituted the charges against him. A decision from a USDA hearing is expected soon, Slagle said.
The larger controversy over APHIS' civil rights programs stems, ironically, from a get-tough policy on enforcement invoked by USDA officials early in 1985. The department had been shaken by four tumultuous years in which congressional critics and USDA employes had charged that civil rights and equal opportunity programs were in a shambles.
Franke and USDA responded by assigning Samuel Cornelius, a veteran department employe, to oversee enforcement activity and by hiring Lawrence Bembry from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to handle day-to-day management of the programs.
USDA employes who previously criticized handling of the programs say that Cornelius and Bembry have made major progress in convincing agencies to beef up their enforcement programs and comply with affirmative action and minority hiring requirements.
The compliance review that found large problems in APHIS and in four other smaller USDA agencies whose equal-opportunity programs are managed by APHIS had been ordered by Bembry as part of a larger departmental review to identify problems and find ways to solve them quickly.
"We focused on changes that were essential to make the system work," Bembry said. " We have constantly offered to work with them. Our job is to offer advice and counsel, but they have not been receptive. All we want to do is settle this and move on. It diverts us and them from other things we should be doing."
Bembry also said he was concerned about the Stovall case, which "sent all the wrong messages. It was distressing. Stovall was chosen by APHIS to assist us and he was in on all the meetings. It is unfortunate that at the end of the process he had problems with his own agency. They closed the process that we had attempted to open."
APHIS's Slagle insisted in an interview that the agency had made major progress in dealing with civil rights enforcement problems.
"The review is past history. I would rather focus on the positive," he said. But in a second interview, set up at his request, he conceded that APHIS continues to have problems and that he, as a deputy administrator responsible for oversight, has to take the blame.
Although Slagle denied that he had resisted responding to the review, he agreed that he had not met a deadline set so Bembry could brief incoming Secretary Richard E. Lyng about his office's activities. APHIS also ignored a denial by Bembry's shop of a request for an extension until April 1.
Slagle would not discuss details of the Stovall case, but denied that the dismissal was in retaliation for exposure of the agency's deficiencies, as Stovall has charged.
Romero, the supervisor whom Stovall criticized, was promoted one grade to a GS-14 level in February. Stovall, at the same time, was ordered to stay away from his job but to be available for telephone or personal contact every workday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. "for further instructions from this office."
"I've had no calls from any of them. I've been sitting by the phone for three weeks," Stovall said. "I'm sitting here, on orders, contributing to the inefficiency of government that the Grace Commission criticized in its report to President Reagan. All I really want is to work in a normal atmosphere and make a contribution."