Letter to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns

Press Release

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Aug. 8, 2007
Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) today called on Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to examine recent allegations that USDA employees used federal resources to lobby against legislation that would allow black farmers to file claims under the Pigford settlement. According to federal law and USDA policies, the use of federal resources for lobbying members of Congress is strictly prohibited. The Pigford settlement, approved in 1999, allowed black farmers to file claims against the USDA for failing to respond to racial discrimination complaints between 1983 and 1997. Recently passed legislation in the House of Representatives would allow certain previously denied farmers an opportunity to re-file their settlement claims and have them reviewed on their merits. Obama has introduced companion legislation (S. 1989) in the Senate.

The text of the letter is below:

Dear Secretary Johanns:

I am writing to express my serious concerns regarding recent reports that U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA") employees are using federal resources to lobby against recently passed legislation. Specifically, news reports indicate that certain USDA Farm Services Agency employees have been circulating an e-mail encouraging their colleagues to contact members of Congress to oppose provisions in the House-passed Farm Bill. The targeted provisions would provide unjustly denied black farmers an opportunity to have their claims filed pursuant to the Pigford settlement reviewed on the merits.

As you know, the use of federal resources for lobbying is specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. ยง1913, which prohibits the use of appropriated funds for activities that directly or indirectly are "intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, to favor, adopt, or oppose . . . any legislation, law, ratification, or appropriation, whether before or after the introduction of any bill."

As the USDA ethics webpage specifically notes, this statute is "interpreted to prohibit government employees from engaging in substantial grass roots lobbying-campaigns using telegrams, letters, or other forms of communication that directly or indirectly encourage the public to contact members of Congress in support of, or in opposition to, legislation" (http://www.usda-ethics.net/rules/rule9.htm).

The e-mails referenced in various media accounts appear to violate both USDA ethics guidance and federal law. The news reports note that some USDA employees have circulated a message urging their colleagues to rally against the Pigford provision in the House-passed Farm Bill. The e-mails quote Carolyn Cooksie, Deputy Administrator for Farm Loan Programs as saying it would be "awful" to allow 73,000 late filers to qualify for awards.

The e-mails go on to warn of what would happen if the bill passes:

The agency will be required to submit a boatload of information within 60 days of anyone filing which will bury us! Not to mention, most of this information we don't have. . . . Carolyn is doing a lot of legwork in the Senate trying to stop it but NACS (National Association of Credit Specialists), NASE, and other FSA (Farm Service Agency) employees need to contact their senators and work hard to get it stopped. The contacts need to be made before the debate starts in the Senate. . . . Remember, don't make contacts using the office telephone or computer. Send your contacts from home or from another location other than the office, but send them!

I appreciate that Farm Services Agency employees have received a memorandum reminding them of the legal prohibitions against lobbying with federal resources. However, the employees' e-mails raise a larger question of whether the Department is capable even now of providing black farmers - and all farmers - with fair and equal access to USDA loans and services. As you are well aware, the Pigford settlement was an acknowledgement that black farmers suffered discrimination from the USDA for many years. It is unconscionable that some USDA employees appear to be more concerned about their workloads than on correcting a serious injustice.

I ask that you publicly disavow the apparent efforts of these employees to undermine the attempts to provide justice to Pigford claimants. I also ask that you notify me by August 15, 2007, as to what steps you have taken to remedy this situation and prevent a recurrence, including employee training or disciplinary action. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama
United States Senator