GAO auditors, seeking to interview various USDA employees about new allegations of discrimination, were told to leave the Agriculture Department by government lawyers. The USDA lawyers concluded that their employees could only be interviewed with legal counsel present – a request that GAO investigators refused.
The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, released this statement to Market to Market:
“In the vast majority of our audit cases, the GAO gets cooperation. In those instances where we encounter certain difficulties, we consider an array of options available to us in determining how to proceed…GAO plans to continue its audit work, which should be completed about mid-July.”
U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley, Tom Harkin, and Richard Lugar urged GAO investigators to examine racial discrimination allegations against the USDA Civil Rights Office. The bi-partisan team of farm-state lawmakers called the USDA decision to remove inspectors “unjustified” and issued this release:
“Given USDA’s documented history of civil rights abuses, one of which led to a consent decree that, to date, has paid out nearly one billion dollars in settlements to black farmers, USDA’s unwillingness to provide documentation to GAO raises very serious questions whether the Department is serious about stopping civil rights abuses.”
The concerns of high-ranking lawmakers such as Harkin, Grassley, and Lugar come as the 2007 farm bill is nearing completion on Capitol Hill and may include language pertaining to black farmers. Allegations of discrimination have plagued USDA for much of the last quarter-century. After the landmark legal decision of Pickford vs. Glickman in 1999, many black farmers were awarded financial damages but multiple complaints claim thousands of farmers were unfairly turned away.
John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, contends that language in the new farm bill could allow thousands of black farmers an opportunity to reapply for financial damages