By Ian Swanson and Kevin Bogardus - 09/13/07 06:36 PM EDT
Under the 1999 Pigford settlement, the USDA agreed to honor claims filed by black farmers who had been denied access to loans and other USDA assistance. More than $850 million has been provided so far, but Obama, Towns and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) say many other black farmers have been turned down for what they say are technicalities, such as late filing.
The farm bill passed by the House includes language that would allow a review to farmers previously denied relief. It also would require the USDA to provide petitioners with information on USDA loan data. Obama has sponsored similar language in the Senate, and hopes to work with Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on its inclusion in a Senate farm bill.
Johanns on Tuesday told reporters that members of Congress were “justifiably” upset about an e-mail that called on Farm Service Agency (FSA) employees to lobby against the language. He said such lobbying would violate USDA rules prohibiting grassroots lobbying by employees.
“I must admit, it’s painful for me that we have an e-mail out there that advocated a given position,” Johanns said Tuesday. “That really upset Congress, and I don’t want that to jeopardize what has been a very positive view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and what we can offer in the policy debate.”
He described the matter as a personnel issue, and said it was being investigated within the USDA. “We are not a lobbying agency here,” he said. “In fact, there are rules against that. So let me just speak very strongly that that is not permitted here.”
Aides to Obama and Towns said both were pleased that the USDA appeared to be taking their concerns seriously, although Towns renewed his call for an outside investigation.
“Mr. Towns is happy that [Secretary] Johanns is taking it seriously, but we need an investigation because this isn’t an isolated incident,” said a spokeswoman for the New York Democrat, Denise Mixon, adding that Towns is looking into other complaints from black farmers.
It is not clear if the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General is conducting an investigation since its policy is not to comment on whether an investigation is taking place unless it is something of high national concern.
“Senator Obama remains concerned about this issue but is pleased that USDA is conducting an investigation and looks forward to hearing its results,” an aide in the Illinois Democrat’s office said.
Although the aide said Obama’s office had not received a response to his request to hear about steps the USDA had taken to remedy the situation, Johanns’s comments seem to meet the senator’s request that he “publicly disavow” the alleged lobbying efforts by the employees.
The e-mail in question, apparently written by a Farm Service Agency employee, quoted the deputy farm loans administrator for the agency, Carolyn Cooksie, as saying legislative language dealing with the Pigford settlement in the House farm bill was “awful.” It also said Cooksie was lobbying senators to oppose it.
The message encouraged agency employees to lobby senators as well, arguing the additional workload would be a burden. “The agency will be required to submit a boatload of information within 60 days of anyone filing which will bury us!” read the e-mail, which was first disclosed by the Environmental Working Group.
It also charged that farmers had ample time and opportunity to make claims under the original settlement, and that allowing the additional claims would cost taxpayers billions of dollars if the claims of 73,000 late filers were accepted.
“I am willing to tell my senators that I will not cast my vote for anyone who will not stand up and do what’s right instead of worrying about being politically correct,” the e-mail said. “They should be fiscally responsible and at the same time listen to their constituents.”
In separate Aug. 7 memos, USDA’s general counsel and FSA’s administrator said employees were prohibited from lobbying activities during duty hours and from using government equipment, and that this prohibition extended to “grassroots” activities such as urging others to contact their elected representatives.
FSA Administrator Teresa Lasseter’s memo criticized the tone of the e-mail, emphasizing that Johanns said the civil rights of all USDA customers and employees would be ensured in one of his first acts in office. Lasseter said the FSA does not have a position on the language, but that if it does take one, “we will do so in a manner that is respectful of the sensitivities involved.”
Kenneth Gross, an ethics expert and partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, said the activities described in the e-mail are rare. “It is highly unusual to engage in a potential grassroots campaign,” he said.