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Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster

Representing the 2nd District of New Hampshire

Kuster, Fudge Lead Letter Calling on Agriculture Department to Step Up Civil Rights Enforcement

Mar 6, 2020
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Today, Representatives Annie Kuster (NH-02) and Marcia Fudge (OH-11) led a group of 20 Members of Congress in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Assistant Secretary Devon Westhill. The Members urged Westhill, who assumed office on Monday, to improve USDA civil rights enforcement and protect the rights of USDA workers and program applicants to the full extent and letter of law. 

“[The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR)] leadership must have experience managing an active multi-agency EEOC complaint system,” wrote the Members. “According to information provided by USDA to the House Agriculture Committee last year, of the more than 300 civil rights complaints filed by USDA employees in fiscal year 2019 across 10 agencies, OASCR determined wrongdoing in only 2 cases.  The lack of findings of wrongdoing could lead to employees filing fewer complaints in the future, for fear their cases will not be taken seriously.  While USDA’s data was not further delineated to provide clarity of the specific nature of the complaints, it is indicative of OASCR’s continued failure to address possible civil rights violations across the Department.” 

The miniscule amount of cases that resulted in a finding of wrongdoing is especially troubling given recent allegations of harassment, abuse, and widespread mistrust amongst the U.S. Forest Service workforce, as well as USDA’s long history of inequitable treatment of socially disadvantaged and minority farmers and ranchers – resulting in the loss of land, delays or rejection in farm credit loans, and a lack of access to technical assistance for farm programs. The Members made clear they expect Deputy Assistant Secretary Westhill and OASCR to be more transparent with Congress as they work to address these important concerns.    

“It is of the utmost importance that you demonstrate a strong commitment to protecting the civil rights of all USDA employees and program applicants,” the Members continued. “That is the job you were sent there to do.  Our job is to hold you accountable and ensure you protect the rights of those you were appointed to serve.  We are counting on you to get this right!”

Congresswoman Kuster is the founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence. Congresswoman Fudge serves on the House Agriculture Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations.

In addition to Reps. Kuster and Fudge, the letter was signed by: Representatives Alma S. Adams (NC-12), Cheri Bustos (IL-17), Steve Cohen (TN-09), TJ Cox (CA-21), Angie Craig (MN-02), Danny K. Davis (IL-07), Peter A. DeFazio (OR-04), Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02), Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18), James P. McGovern (MA-02), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), Chellie Pingree (ME-01), Mark Pocan (WI-02), David Scott (GA-13), Darren Soto (FL-09), and Abigail Spanberger (VA-07).

The full text of the letter is available here and below:

 

March 6, 2020

Devon Westhill

Deputy Assistant Secretary

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

 

Dear Deputy Assistant Secretary Westhill,

We write in regard to your recent appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR). We urge you and all senior leadership within OASCR to make it your top priority to improve USDA civil rights enforcement and protect the rights of USDA workers and program applicants to the full extent and letter of law. 

OASCR leadership must have experience managing an active multi-agency EEOC complaint system.  According to information provided by USDA to the House Agriculture Committee last year, of the more than 300 civil rights complaints filed by USDA employees in fiscal year 2019 across 10 agencies, OASCR determined wrongdoing in only 2 cases.  The lack of findings of wrongdoing could lead to employees filing fewer complaints in the future, for fear their cases will not be taken seriously.  While USDA’s data was not further delineated to provide clarity of the specific nature of the complaints, it is indicative of OASCR’s continued failure to address possible civil rights violations across the Department.  This includes cases related to sexual harassment and assault.

Recent revelations within the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) underscore the need for strong civil rights leadership.  A March 2018 report issued by the USDA Office of Inspector General indicated widespread mistrust amongst the USFS workforce concerning the legitimacy of the reporting process.  Several whistleblowers bravely stepped forward to illuminate how fears of retribution discouraged reporting of harassment and abuse across the agency.  This is unacceptable and undermines the over 39,000 employees tasked with carrying out its mission to manage nearly one-tenth of the land across the United States.  While we are encouraged by USDA’s ongoing work to investigate and address this broad culture of harassment and retaliation, make no mistake: Congress will continue to hold you and OASCR accountable to restore trust among USFS employees.

Lastly, USDA has a long history of inequitable treatment against socially disadvantaged and minority farmers and ranchers, resulting in the loss of land, delays or rejection in farm credit loans, and a lack of access to technical assistance for farm programs.  Although USDA has done well to settle longstanding discrimination lawsuits, the OASCR leadership must have experience working with diverse stakeholders and communities to ensure fair treatment for farmers of color.  Working towards the goal of continuous improvement and inclusivity must be a top priority.

It is of the utmost importance that you demonstrate a strong commitment to protecting the civil rights of all USDA employees and program applicants.  That is the job you were sent there to do.  Our job is to hold you accountable and ensure you protect the rights of those you were appointed to serve.  We are counting on you to get this right!

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