WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley is renewing his request for a hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee that focuses on the Office of Civil Rights and the alleged widespread abuses of civil rights throughout the Department of Agriculture. Grassley sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
“The Department has overcome numerous obstacles and made some progress in this area, but the successes are few and far between,” Grassley said. “When the Office of Civil Rights was set up, it was expected to provide leadership and direction for the fair and equitable treatment of all customers and employees of the Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, it seems that the division that was set up to oversee discrimination complaints is the very one being accused of inadequately addressing the complaints.”
An October 2008 report released by the Government Accountability Office said that the Department of Agriculture has continued to struggle to meet its basic responsibilities to guarantee the civil rights of its personnel and ensure that minority farmers and ranchers are served without discrimination.
Here is a copy of the text of Grassley’s letter.
The Honorable Debbie Stabenow Chairwoman, Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Russell Senate Office Building 328A Washington, DC 20510-6000
Dear Chairwoman Stabenow,
I am writing to respectfully request a hearing on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Civil Rights and reported wide spread abuses of civil rights throughout the USDA system. I have made this request of prior Agriculture Committee Chairs on numerous occasions as recently as June 15, 2010. The Office of Civil Rights’ mission is to provide leadership and direction for the fair and equitable treatment of all USDA customers and employees while ensuring the delivery of quality programs and enforcement of civil rights. Serious questions have been raised over the last several years regarding how the Office of Civil Rights tracks, processes, and remedies complaints brought against both the Department, and their own office.
The Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights leads a relatively infant organization compared to other government organizations. However, there have been many complaints against the very division that was set up to see that discrimination complaints are addressed promptly and in compliance with all applicable law. I am not suggesting that actual discrimination is occurring. Each employee and participant in a USDA program has a right to file a complaint if they feel they have been treated unjustly.
In a report released by the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) in October 2008, titled U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendation and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, USDA has continued to struggle to meet its basic responsibilities to guarantee the civil rights of its personnel and ensure that minority farmers and ranchers are served without discrimination. The report found that USDA has: (1) difficulty resolving discrimination complaints (2) a significant backlog of pending complaints, (3) a statutory mandate to publish reports on the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs but those reports are riddled with unreliable data, and (4) not taken critical steps to “ensure USDA provides fair and equitable services to all customers and upholds the civil rights of its employees.”
In addition, during April 2006, GAO issued a report on the Pigford black farmer’s discrimination case. In its recommendations, the GAO recommended that the USDA establish a civil rights ombudsman. The report stated that “An ombudsman not only works to resolve disputes but also is in a position to alert management to systemic problems and thereby help correct organization-wide situations and develop strategies for preventing and managing conflicts. Moreover, an ombudsman office can help an organization assure a fair, equitable and nondiscriminatory environment. In this regard, the voice of an independent ombudsman could potentially be useful in addressing concerns about equitable access to programs and other civil rights issues at USDA.” GAO, while reviewing how the Pigford settlement was progressing, also noted that there were inequities within the Office of Civil Rights and that Congress should consider ways to improve their service.
I am confident that you and I share the belief that the Senate Agriculture Committee has a duty to provide oversight of organizations, especially ones so critical to administering the very programs we have worked on in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill). In closing, and perhaps most importantly, the concerns plaguing the Office of Civil Rights at the USDA are ripe for Committee oversight since it has been quite some time since the Senate examined these issues. I am hopeful that you will look favorably upon this request for a hearing. Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.
Charles E. Grassley United States Senator