Longtime Agriculture official steps down

Pearlie Reed Pearlie Reed USDA photo
Pearlie Reed, a 35-year veteran of the Agriculture Department who worked in conservation and with black farmers, quietly retired on June 1, five days before Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that Reed had chosen to leave his slot as assistant secretary for administration “for personal reasons.” Vilsack wrote to staff saying he had encouraged Reed to stay on.

“I have full confidence in the talented departmental administration leadership team that Pearlie has helped to develop,” Vilsack said in an unusual press release, saying his team will “continue important efforts such as cultural transformation and USDA’s Blueprint for Stronger Service.”

Reed said in the release, “It has been a high honor and great privilege to serve over the past three years” under both Vilsack and President Obama. “In retirement, I will continue to focus on conservation and public policy issues impacting socially disadvantaged farmers and communities.”

An office under Reed’s purview had been the subject of criticism in a May Agriculture inspector general audit report, though a department spokeswoman told Government Executive the IG report was not related to his departure.

On June 13, Vilsack announced to staff that Obama has tapped Gregory Parham, currently administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, as acting assistant administrator. Both Parham and Reed are black, and USDA has come under criticism for having too few minorities in leadership positions going back decades.

This month’s departure marks the second time Reed has retired from the department, which he served during the Clinton administration, to return to his native Arkansas as a consultant.

Reed joined USDA in 1968 as a college student trainee with the Soil Conservation Service in Walnut Ridge, Ark. He was state conservationist for California from 1989-94 and state conservationist for Maryland from 1985-89. He held various positions in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, becoming its chief in 1998.

For two years during the Clinton administration, Reed acted as assistant secretary for administration and was appointed to head the Civil Rights Action Team by then-secretary Dan Glickman. That team’s report included 92 recommendations that President Clinton ordered into effect.

Reed received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, the George Washington Carver Public Service Hall of Fame Award and the USDA Silver Plow Award.

Reed joined the Obama administration USDA on May 21, 2009. In February 2010, just days before Obama announced a proposed $1.25 billion financial settlement of the long-running Pigford II discrimination lawsuit by black farmers, Reed traveled to Albany, Ga., to keynote a conference held by the nation’s largest black farmers organization.

Later that year, he furthered Vilsack’s civil rights agenda by signing several “affinity” memoranda of understanding on best workplace practices with employee groups representing women, blacks, American Indians, Latinos and Asians.

In January 2011, Reed joined Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to address more than 300 senior executive service and other high-level employees to highlight USDA’s cultural transformation initiatives and to emphasize diversity and inclusion.

The inspector general report that faulted a Reed-supervised office, dated May 18, was an audit Vilsack requested in April. It critiqued procedures used by the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to select grant recipients through a program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The IG preliminarily concluded that at least some of the 57 recipients under the Section 2501 Program “may not be the most meritorious and deserving applicants” for the grants intended to provide outreach, education and technical assistance.

The audit found that procedures for documentation and regulatory requirements had not been followed. “The selection of less meritorious applicants could negatively impact assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and could expose the department to unnecessary criticism and potentially even legal action,” Assistant Inspector General for Audit Gil H. Harden told Reed in a memo. Reed was told the grants were being suspended pending corrective action.

In response to the memo, Reed wrote, “departmental management concurs with the facts, representations and conclusions” of the audit and was committed to corrective actions. Reed noted the director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach was new to the job.

“During her short tenure she has begun assessing the technical skills of the current staff and identifying skills gaps,” he wrote. “Recent outgoing transfers and incoming staff details have begun to close the detected skills gaps and create an experienced staff with which to administer the 2501 program.”

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