By BEN EVANS
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department abruptly ordered
congressional auditors to leave its headquarters and told its employees not to
cooperate with them.
"You are hereby instructed not to meet with any member of the
(Government Accountability Office) today, or until this matter is resolved,"
Michael Watts, a top USDA attorney, wrote to employees Wednesday in an
e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.
The auditors were seeking information for an ongoing audit on Agriculture's
office of civil rights and its handling of discrimination complaints.
Specifically, they were investigating allegations that the department had
previously provided false information for the audit.
J. Michael Kelly, Agriculture's deputy general counsel, said the GAO
investigators called the department Wednesday morning to say they were on
their way to its headquarters and wanted to speak with a handful of specific
The auditors refused to allow USDA lawyers to be present for the
interviews, and after allowing one employee to talk, department officials
stopped the interviews and told the investigators to leave the building, Kelly
"We are not interested in having our employees potentially put themselves at
risk when they have not yet been advised of their rights and when we were
not allowed to provide counsel," Kelly said. "We also pointed out to them
that while they hold themselves out to be criminal investigators, GAO is an
arm of Congress and has no authority to investigate violations of criminal
Kelly said the department has been cooperating with the auditors for a year
but will not allow its employees to discuss the matter until it gets more
"We don't have anything to hide," Kelly said. "We have absolutely no
understanding of why anybody at GAO believes there's been any
A spokesman for GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said the agency
could not immediately comment on the matter.
John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who for years has criticized the Agriculture
Department on civil rights issues, said the development shows that the
department is not open about its handling of civil rights complaints.
"We think it's appalling that the USDA would go this far to obstruct civil
rights," he said. "It's obvious that they have something to hide."
Although executive agencies frequently chafe at GAO's findings, the agency has a reputation as an independent, nonpartisan investigative office.
The agency has clashed with the Bush administration, however, most
notably in 2002 when it sued Vice President Dick Cheney to get the names
of energy executives who met with a White House task force working on
President Bush's energy policy. The lawsuit marked the first time in the
GAO's nearly 90-year history that it had resorted to asking a federal judge to
force a president or vice president or their aides to release documents.
The GAO lost the case.