The GAO Strikes Back!!

On May 14, the House Agriculture Committee conducted a hearing into USDA’s “progress” in improving its treatment of minority farmers and employees. At the hearing, the GAO reported that USDA’s claims about its progress in reducing a backlog of employment or program complaints of discrimination cannot be verified, due to poor record-keeping. The Washington Post quoted Lisa Shames of the GAO, who testified that “at a basic level, the credibility of USDA’s efforts has been and continues to be undermined . . . by faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints and disparities in . . . data.” She added. “Even such basic information as the number of complaint is subject to wide variation in . . . reports to the public and the Congress.”

According to the Post, the EEOC and GAO have repeatedly criticized USDA for taking an average of two years longer than standard to process employment complaints. This has lead to serious, though apparently unquantifiable, complaint backlogs. Even worse, according to Rep. Edolphus Towns (D -NY), USDA civil rights employees are subject to retaliation when they report discrimination. Meanwhile, John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association said, “We think civil rights is going backwards at the department . . .They can’t tell us what’s going on with the cases. There’s no commitment whatsoever to rights. The GAO testimony supports what we’ve been saying for the past couple of years.”

USDA Civil Rights was in the news earlier this year when Civil Rights employees were ordered by managers not to speak to GAO auditors and the auditors themselves were ejected from the building. See “USDA Shuts Down Congressional Audit,” Associated Press, 2/28/2008. The thwarted auditors were seeking – wait for it – information for an ongoing audit on USDA Civil Rights and its handling of discrimination complaints. USDA OCR actually instructed employees, in writing, “not to meet with any member of the [GAO] today, or until this matter is resolved.” In writing!

USDA CR’s open attempt to keep its employees from talking to GAO was simply amazing given that a hearing was already in the works. Senator Grassley announced back in January that he would hold a hearing on USDA’s “progress” in shaking off its disgraceful history as the last of the “old-line” agencies. (For the uninitiated, “old-line” is code for “openly hostile to minority employees and farmers.”) Not sure how the House got there first, but the question remains: what could USDA have been thinking?

The moral of this story: unless you’re Dick Cheney, don’t fight the GAO. They know the big guns on the Hill and the scuffle will end with you sitting in a hearing room having your head handed to you while the Post and the AP take notes.