Group demands change in civil rights leadership at Agriculture

The results of a new report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have prompted leaders of an anti-discrimination group to call for the resignation of top officials in the Agriculture Department's general counsel and civil rights offices.

On Friday, James W. Myart, attorney and general counsel for the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman calling for the resignation or removal of David Winningham, director of the Agriculture Department's Office of Civil Rights; Nancy Bryson, Agriculture's general counsel; and J. Michael Kelly, deputy general counsel for the department. Myart's request comes on the heels of a Feb. 26 EEOC report criticizing how department officials handle civil rights complaints. In recent years Agriculture has been the subject of several class action lawsuits filed by farmers and department employees alleging discrimination against African Americans.

"The report makes it unequivocally clear that the Office of Civil Rights is a nonfunctional facade of incompetence, arrogance, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, nonresponsiveness and irresponsibility," Myart charged in the letter.

In the February report, the EEOC found that the Office of General Counsel compromised the department's ability to independently investigate employee complaints by offering advice to the agency on handling complaints in the early stages of the investigation. The Office of General Counsel is responsible for defending the agency against discrimination complaints while the Office of Civil Rights handles the complaints in the early stages of the investigation. According to the report, the Office of General Counsel's involvement in the early stages also slowed down the settlement process.

"The Office of General Counsel's involvement during the informal stage of the EEO process may thwart attempts at counseling to resolve matters prior to the filing of a formal complaint where the parties may be willing to settle," the report said.

A spokeswoman at Agriculture said that while the department welcomes EEOC's assistance, the information provided in the report is dated and doesn't reflect the current situation.

"It's based on site visits in June 2002 and we have implemented changes since that time," said spokeswoman Julie Quick. "We've improved communication and coordination, and we have installed two state-of-the-art tracking systems to track these complaints for both program and employment issues as they go through the system."

Quick also said department officials "resurrected a firewall between the Office of General Counsel and staff in the Office of Civil Rights" that should address the concerns outlined by the EEOC.

"A number of the things cited in the EEOC report we were aware of and have been working to improve," Quick said, pointing to the addition of an assistant secretary for civil rights position at the department as proof of Veneman's commitment to reforming the system. The nominee for the position, Vernon Parker, is awaiting Senate confirmation.

Agencies have 180 days to complete a complaint investigation and many federal agencies have backlogs of thousands of EEO complaints and spin-off complaints. According to EEOC, investigation processing at the Agriculture Department averaged 559 days in fiscal 2001. The average processing time governmentwide during the same time period was 451 days.

On Monday, Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, pointed to the successes the State Department has had in reducing its backlog of discrimination cases as an example of how best to handle the discrimination complaints process.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell took over the department in 2001, he installed Barbara Pope as assistant secretary for the State Department's Office of Civil Rights and lobbied for more money in the department's budget to help reduce the backlog. At a November EEOC meeting to discuss reforming the federal sector discrimination complaint process, Pope described the reforms State Department officials used to reduce its backlog of discrimination cases, including requiring management to participate in mediation if an employee requests the measure.

"He put her in place, then he supported her," Lucas said, referring to Powell's move to put Pope in her current position.