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Grassley presses Vilsack on civil rights complaints

Two Iowans who have been longtime champions of civil rights at the Agriculture Department — Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa Democratic governor, seem to be vying for the title of who is the most committed to the cause.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa

Sen. Charles Grassley
Grassley, who has frequently inserted requirements for USDA civil rights compliance and reports in farm bills, recently wrote Vilsack a letter asking for an update on the processing of civil rights claims by employees at the agency.

Citing a 2008 General Accountability Office report and a 2011 study commissioned by USDA, Grassley said there is no excuse for the delays that USDA employees have experienced in the processing of civil rights complaints. He asked whether anyone has been held responsible for the slowness in response and requested a briefing on the issue.

Vilsack said on his first day in office that cleaning up USDA's civil rights record would be his top priority. He has agreed to settlements of longstanding black and Native American farmer discrimination cases, is attempting to resolve cases brought by women and Hispanic farmers and has instituted changes in employment practices to try to forge what he calls a new employment climate at USDA.

Reacting to Grassley’s public release of the letter, a Vilsack spokesman said, “The senator may be misguided, as USDA is proud to now be leading the federal government in issuing findings of discrimination for employment complaints, while holding our employee-to-complaint ratio well below the federal norm according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

“Meanwhile, complaints from both employees and customers have fallen to historic lows as this administration has made it priority to build a new era for civil rights at USDA by ensuring that all people get a fair shake, no matter their race, color, sex, or age,” the spokesman said.

“We have made a concerted effort to resolve complaints and close the chapter on allegations of past discrimination at USDA. Part of that effort focused on reducing the time USDA takes to resolve a discrimination complaint filed by an employee or customer so they don’t lose their right to go to court because the statute of limitations has passed, as was the case in the previous administration.”