By LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press Writer
RICHMOND, Va. - A federal employee circulated an e-mail urging colleagues to lobby for the defeat of farm legislation in Congress, prompting a complaint from the National Black Farmers Association and a stern warning from U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.
The e-mail criticizes a provision in the farm bill that would reopen a 1998 discrimination settlement between black farmers and the USDA. The measure, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, could result in thousands of new claims.
"Ample time and opportunity was given during the initial suit to file and this late filing would bury the agency and cost taxpayers billions of dollars if the 73,000 late filers are accepted," the e-mail sent to dozens of U.S. Farm Service Agency employees in Virginia says.
The FSA is the Agriculture Department branch that deals with farm loans.
"Members, please stand up and make your voice heard in this Farm Bill debate," said the e-mail, obtained by The Associated Press. "I am writing 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."
Kim DePasquale, the FSA employee in Fredericksburg who distributed the e-mail, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, was outraged by the e-mail, which he said appears to violate the Hatch Act - a law that restricts political activity by federal employees.
"They're lobbying against black farmers who can barely defend themselves," Boyd lamented.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which has supported the black farmers' anti-discrimination efforts, asked the USDA's inspector general to investigate.
"This illegal lobbying activity is all the more disturbing in light of the well-documented history of discrimination against black farmers by the very agency whose personnel have now used government resources in an attempt to block legislation that would allow black farmers to renew pursuit of discrimination claims," the group's president, Kenneth Cook, wrote.
FSA officials refused to discuss the issue. However, the agency's administrator and its chief lawyer sent employees separate memos Tuesday warning them that they are legally barred from using government time or resources to lobby Congress.
"The purpose of this memorandum is to remind all FSA employees that while you are free to exercise your First Amendment rights on your own time and during non-working hours, you are prohibited from such lobbying activities during duty hours and from using Government equipment - including computers and telephones - in any such endeavor," agency general counsel Marc. L. Kesselman wrote.
FSA Administrator Teresa C. Lasseter followed up with memo of her own "to further emphasize the importance and seriousness of following the legal advice" provided by Kesselman.
"In each instance where we have reason to believe that FSA personnel may have engaged in unauthorized activities, we will conduct an inquiry into the circumstances and, depending on the findings, appropriate action will be taken," Lasseter wrote.
Lasseter also said she was "concerned about the tone in which the legislative provisions have been characterized" - an apparent reference to the e-mail's mention of political correctness.
Boyd was particularly troubled by the e-mail's assertion that Carolyn Cooksie, the USDA's deputy administrator for farm loan programs, called the settlement provision "awful" and has been "doing a lot of legwork in the Senate trying to stop it."
Cooksie referred questions to the FSA's media affairs office, which provided the Lasseter and Kesselman memos but declined to elaborate.
Boyd said the FSA's response "shows some things were done wrong" but does not go far enough. Employees who have improperly lobbied should be punished, he said.
"There's really no accountability," Boyd said. "They're real nice letters, but nobody was penalized."