According to reports from the Associated Press, “On Wednesday, Agriculture officials ordered auditors from the Government Accountability Office to leave its offices and told employees not to speak with them. The GAO is the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.” (AP)
According to newswires, USDA outright ordered its employees not to speak with congressional auditors. "You are hereby instructed not to meet with any member of the (Government Accountability Office) today, or until this matter is resolved," Michael Watts, head of the department's office of adjudication, wrote to employees Wednesday in an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.
At issue is a generation’s long battle over whether the United States Department of Agriculture is treating minority, elderly and socially disadvantaged farmers fairly, in essence, whether the USDA is violating the civil rights of American farmers. Even more to the point is question of not only whether the agency is treating disadvantaged farmers fairly, but whether the agency is accurately reporting the level of complaints which have been directed at its procedures and employees.
Farmers have been claiming there’s something rotten and corrupt in the Department of Agriculture for years. They claim USDA employees have lied about their actions regarding disadvantaged farmers, but have received little satisfaction. Despite scores of lawsuits, protests and even acts of civil disobedience and arrests over the last two decades, many family farmers say they are no better off now, than they were before the protests.
Many remain intensely dissatisfied with how they have been treated by the federal government’s agricultural department employees and program managers, particularly when it comes to lodging complaints against the agency. Thousands of family farmers say they are actually worse off now, than they were then, because many of them have lost their homes and farms in contested foreclosures and some are skating in and out of homelessness.
Meanwhile, the farmer sits in his about to be foreclosed on house, or in a rented house, trying to get justice, and ends up getting the shaft–along with a slew of letters from the government telling him why he got shafted. This vicious circle has generated scores of angry, desperate farmers, many of whom have been painted as ‘dangerous’, ‘extremist’, or ‘violent.’
According to farm activists, many farmers under foreclosure farmers have not been allowed to present evidence that their debt was paid up or even paid off, entirely, hence, the anger. Many remain outraged and say their right to a fair bankruptcy hearing was allegedly compromised, a process which, they say, constitutes fraud on part of the government.
Reporting of problems and the level of complaint within the agency remains a sore point between Congress and USDA. Today, nine years after the historic Pigford decision, after Native Americans and other ethnic minorities filed suit, many of the issues unveiled in the Pigford decision regarding black farmers, remain unsolved—for black and other ‘disadvantaged farmers’ as well.
At issue, this time, is the question of whether the administration and the USDA are painting a false picture of the state of affairs between the USDA and distressed family farmers. That is, whether the statistics submitted to Congress about the level of complaints are accurate.
While some of the issue is directly linked to whether the Civil Rights Division of the USDA is properly investigating and adjudicating complaints of minority farmers, the agency’s handling of family farm issues, particularly foreclosures, have come into question.
Scores of unanswered questions outrage farmers from Maine to California. Questions such as whether illegal foreclosures are taking place and if farmers are being railroaded out of business. Questions of possible collusion between local federal farm loan officials, banks, real estate agencies, auction houses and buyers.
There are questions of racially-motivated roadblocks generated by USDA’s farm loan officers, administrators who allegedly use their position as loan officers to sabotage farm loan plans of black, Hispanic and Native American ranchers and farmers, and roadblock loan applications of women, elderly farmers and disabled farmers and ranchers, essentially driving them out of business.
There are also major questions of conflict of interest within the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which is the loan servicing division of the USDA. The same loan officer in charge of assisting the farmer with his farm business plan and approving or denying his or her farm loan, is also an individual who receives a bonus for “clearing farm bankruptcies” and moving farmers from ‘crisis’ to foreclosure and auction.
Then there are additional issues regarding outright violation of Federal Law and Constitutional guarantees. Whether all of the legal requirements of debt foreclosure have been addressed. If the courts have held hearings in farm bankruptcies and whether provisions of the Fair Credit Act has been violated—whether the debt was accurately and truthfully presented in court and whether federal employees truthfully represented the facts in a court of law.
Numerous members of congress, including Senator Barack Obama, Representative John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, question the legitimacy of the Agency’s stance, regarding the failure to cooperate with auditors. Representative Conyers and others have signed a letter of protest, saying, in effect that:
Instructing USDA employees not to cooperate with congressional auditors is counterproductive and entirely unacceptable ... It seems clear that the Department is trying to undermine Congress's efforts to repair decades of discrimination." (Ibid)
Audit and oversight of farm loan and agricultural programs have been a sore point between farm activists, Congress and the USDA. Many farmers claim that the record keeping methods of the USDA are hostile to farmers, even those seeking loan balance statements.
There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence from farmers around nation that the agency’s record keeping problems are more than simple clerical errors. Independent document examiners say there is clear evidence that many farmers have been illegally evicted from their land based on forged documents and even false testimony on part of some federal employees.
A 1992 report from the Government Audit Office noted massive problems within FSA’s precourser, the Farmer Home Administration (FmHA):
GAO'S review of finA’s farm loan programs was part of a special audit
program implemented in 1990 to respond to congressional and GAO
concerns about the continued existence of serious breakdowns in internal
control and financial management systems throughout the government.
This program focuses on areas that GAO believes are highly vulnerable to
waste, abuse, and mismanagement. (GAO, “Billions of Dollars in Farm Loan Are at Risk”, 1992)
Although 18 years have passed, many farmers and property rights activists say mismanagement, waste, abuse, mismanagement and fraud continues within the agency. Many farmers and ranchers say billions of dollars in waste, mismanagement and fraud in the farm loan agency has resulted in illegal evictions, massive conflict of interest within the agency, monumental losses of taxpayer dollars and possible corruption of the nation’s judicial system.
They see the current showdown between USDA and congressional auditors as a chance for Congress to fix a broken auditing system and to bring the agency into compliance with Constitutional Civil Rights laws and statutory Fair Credit and Debt Collection Laws.