"Obviously, we take this very seriously," said Teresa Lasseter, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, in reference to an e-mail circulated last Thursday within the agency urging recipients to contact their senators to express their opposition to a provision in the House version of the Farm Bill that would reopen thousands of discrimination claims by black farmers. Those found to have been involved with the e-mail could face severe civil and criminal penalties.
Lasseter said she has appointed an independent investigator to the case. "I have a lot of confidence in [him]," she said. "He was trained by the inspector general, and he's not close to the employees."
Lasseter's claim addresses the concerns of critics, some of whom have called for a third party investigation. Among the critics is John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, who has been working on legislation to reopen the cases for six years.
More than 23,000 black farmers applied for restitution in 1999 after a Clinton administration official decided the USDA had discriminated against the farmers for decades. More than 73,000 farmers who would have qualified for compensation didn't file claims because, they say, they didn't hear about the decision in time. The new legislation, already passed by the House, would reopen consideration for those farmers, and award up to $100 million in additional compensation.
Boyd said the e-mail "makes the USDA look really bad," and indicates a "lack of sensitivity on the part of higher level officials" toward black farmers, many of whom went into debt as a result of USDA discrimination.
"What we need," Boyd said, "is accountability. These people were on the taxpayer's time, and instead of doing the right thing and making sure that small farmers and black farmers get loans, they were circulating e-mails through all of their staff about how to block legislation."
The e-mail first came to Lasseter's attention on Monday. She responded the next day with a message to all FSA employees that included a memo on employee political activity. "I want to emphasize the importance and seriousness of following the legal advice in this memo," she wrote.
In the memo, USDA General Counsel Marc Kesselman said that employees are free to exercise their First Amendment rights on their own time, but are "prohibited from lobbying activities during duty hours and from using government equipment in any such endeavor."
Using government equipment for lobbying activities carries a penalty under the federal Hatch Act but also under criminal statutes, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an independent organization that focuses on agricultural issues. If found to have broken the law, employees could face suspension, fines and up to a year's imprisonment. They also could lose their jobs.
As of now, authorship of the e-mail is unclear. The original message called on employees to contact their senators and express opposition for the farm bill. Reopening the cases, the e-mail said, would "bury" agency employees in work:
"The agency will be required to submit a boatload of information within 60 days of anyone filing which will bury us! Not to mention, most of this information we don't have. Carolyn [Cooksie, FSA deputy administrator for farm loan programs] is doing a lot of legwork in the Senate trying to stop it but FSA employees need to contact their Senators and work hard to get it stopped. The contacts need to [be] made before the debate starts in the Senate."Lasseter said that Cooksie, who has 32 years of government service, has answered lawmakers' questions about the bill, as FSA senior employees often are called upon to do. "To my knowledge Carolyn has not been lobbying the Hill," Lasseter said. "I have no reason to believe that Carolyn was the author of this e-mail."
Boyd said that he's still confident the provision can pass the Senate, noting the controversy over the FSA e-mail might even help his cause. "Here you have the very agency responsible for making loans to black farmers saying they don't even know if they're going to support [the bill]," he said. "It shows that if the [senators] were sincere about resolving the problem, they would go ahead and back the legislation."