IG finds a familiar pattern of delay at USDA civil rights office

Long-standing problems persisted in Trump administration

Phyllis K. Fong, inspector general for the Agriculture Department, told a House panel the department is still slow in handling discrimination cases.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Phyllis K. Fong, inspector general for the Agriculture Department, told a House panel the department is still slow in handling discrimination cases. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 15, 2022 at 6:04pm

Backlogs in processing civil rights complaints continued to grow in the Agriculture Department office responsible for handling allegations of unfair treatment over a three-year period, the USDA inspector general said Tuesday.

Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong told the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations that the Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) had long-standing issues persisting through the Trump administration.

The IG found that a sample of 28 complaints out of 911 cases closed between Oct. 1, 2016, and June 30, 2019, took up to 799 days to process.

“These challenges are not new. They will take concerted effort to address,” Fong said.

Over the years, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Office of Special Counsel and the Government Accountability Office have identified persistent structural weaknesses that have diminished the office’s effectiveness and stoked mistrust, in particular among Black farmers who say they received little help when they filed documented complaints of discrimination.

Fong said her agency’s latest audit released in fiscal 2021 identified similar weaknesses cited in a 2012 audit and a Government Accountability Office report in 2008. The office needs internal management controls, established goals and objectives and constant review to make sure it is providing timely and effective resolutions.

The civil rights office has a public timeline of 180 days for resolving complaints that Fong said it has not met for several years. Program complaints the IG sampled took an average of 571 days to resolve in fiscal 2017, 594 days in fiscal 2018 and 799 days in fiscal 2019.

The civil rights office through a memorandum of understanding sends nutrition program complaints to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and housing-related issues in USDA’s rural development programs to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Complaints were resolved more quickly but still exceeded the 180-day timeline.

Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., asked why the audit looked at the office during the Trump administration. Fong said the most recent three years of data available were from the Trump administration. A similar three-year review during the Obama administration found the same problems.

Democrats raised concerns about a reorganization of OASCR during the Trump administration they said weakened an already troubled agency.

“So the decreasing staff levels during the last administration, was that in your opinion a contributing force” to problems the inspector general found, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., asked.

Fong said her office had not looked at that although OASCR cited lower staffing as a challenge.

“Any office that loses staff is going to lose capacity to do what it needs to do,” Fong said.

Fong said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Monica Rainge has agreed to enact the 21 recommendations in the report. Rainge oversees the office as the department awaits Senate action on Margo Schlanger, the nominee for assistant secretary for civil rights. The Senate Agriculture Committee reported her nomination to the full Senate on Jan. 12.

Fong said OASCR needs strong leadership to break a pattern of inconsistency and lengthy delays in resolving cases that undermine trust and credibility. The office also needs sufficient staffing and technology along with clear performance standards.  

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., who is chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said pending House (HR 4502) and Senate (S 2599) bills propose increases for OASCR in fiscal 2022. The House bill proposes $35.3 million and the Senate version proposes $29.3 million. Both levels are more than the fiscal 2021 appropriations of $22.8 million.

“If in fact they receive that appropriation and are able to hire an additional 60 plus people, that should make a significant difference in their ability to investigate and adjudicate claims,” Fong said.

Money to help the office update its technology would allow it to manage and track its caseload.

“That’s sounds very promising and I hope to hear good things,” Fong said.