Fact Checker: Vilsack claims on USDA discrimination settlements, training

  • Photo

Introduction

“When I came into this office almost eight years ago … we had at the time over 20,000 pending claims against the department for discrimination of one form or another.”

“Over the course of the last seven plus years … in addition to settling many of these claims, we have really made an effort to become a much more diverse and inclusive USDA.”

“Now, over 5,000 have been trained in terms of the importance of understanding diversity, welcoming diversity and being inclusive.”

Source of claim: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a rural pride summit Aug. 17 at Drake University in Des Moines.

Analysis

The USDA had more than 20,000 discrimination claims included in three decades of old class-action lawsuits when Vilsack joined the agency in January 2009, USDA officials told the Fact Checker.

In February 2010, Vilsack settled one of these class action suits, Pigford II, which asserted black farmers suffered racial discrimination in USDA farm loans. The $1.25 billion settlement set up a process for farmers to demonstrate entitlement to cash awards and debt relief, the USDA reported in 2010.

Later, in October 2010, the USDA announced a similar settlement in Keepseagle vs. Vilsack.

That class action suit, first filed in 1999, asserted the USDA had denied Indian farmers the same low-interest rate loans and loan servicing provided to white farmers since the 1980s, according to Indian Country Today.

Up to $760 million was made available to qualified Indian farmers under Keepseagle, the USDA reported.

Then, the agency offered $1.3 billion in 2011 to settle with Hispanic and female farmers asserting they were denied loans and other assistance provided to white, male farmers, the Washington Post reported.

Vilsack’s Aug. 2 entry on Medium also mentions 14,000 administrative claims that had piled up in 2009. His staff clarified this week these are separate from the 20,000-plus claims contained in the class action suits.

The USDA now has 400 administrative claims pending, agency officials said, which is a 97 percent reduction in five years. The agency also created a universal form for reporting discrimination and an alternative resolution option, “avoiding the need for lengthy investigations and adjudication,” Vilsack noted on Medium.

Vilsack claimed at the Aug. 19 Des Moines event that more than 5,000 USDA employees had received diversity training on his watch.

USDA officials said cultural sensitivity training has been targeted in states with a large number of discrimination complaints over the years. This includes Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

All political appointees also have received diversity training, officials said.

It’s not just the USDA saying it took action.

The Government Accountability Office supported this assessment in a 2012 report to the U.S. House. The GAO said the USDA had fully addressed three of six recommendations the GAO made in 2008 to improve civil rights deficiencies.

These recommendations included having an independent legal review of past civil rights investigations, getting permission to collect demographic data for reliable reporting on race and ethnicity of USDA program participants and exploring having an ombudsman’s office.

The USDA had made “significant progress” on two other 2008 recommendations on resolving discrimination complaints and developing a plan for having a reliable database of customer and employee complaints, the GAO report said.

Some progress had been made on the final recommendation of developing a strategic plan for civil rights, the GAO report said.

Conclusion

Vilsack’s statements in Iowa are corroborated by staff responses to the Fact Checker, news releases and official USDA reports. The GAO, a nonpartisan agency considered Congress’s watchdog, confirmed in 2012 the agency had made significant progress on resolving discrimination complaints, getting external legal review and streamlining the process for future complaints.

We give Vilsack an A for the statements.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan.

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.