Friday, February 29, 2008

GAO Auditors Thrown Out of Agriculture Department Headquarters

Nothing gets me more animated than the subject of agriculture. What used to be the single most important thing in this country--and the sole reason for its expansion and greatness in the early years of our founding--is now the province of agribusiness concerns and massive conglomerates.

The family farm has all but disappeared and has been replaced by urban sprawl, poor land management and rampant subsidies. What used to be an institution that would guarantee minorities successful enfranchisement in this country is an afterthought. The very idea that minorities could own land, borrow money, farm successfully, and reap the benefits helped raise the standard of living for countless minorities. Owning property is the key to establishing a class of people who have a vested interest in good government at the local, state and Federal level. And owning a farm is an act of faith in society.

The incompetence of the Bush Administration has now spread to an area where you would think there would be a minimal amount of insanity. After all, it's the Department of Agriculture. Most Americans don't even realize we still have a Department of Agriculture.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department abruptly ordered congressional auditors to leave its headquarters and told its employees not to cooperate with them.

"You are hereby instructed not to meet with any member of the (Government Accountability Office) today, or until this matter is resolved," Michael Watts, a top USDA attorney, wrote to employees Wednesday in an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

The auditors were seeking information for an ongoing audit on Agriculture's office of civil rights and its handling of discrimination complaints. Specifically, they were investigating allegations that the department had previously provided false information for the audit.

J. Michael Kelly, Agriculture's deputy general counsel, said the GAO investigators called the department Wednesday morning to say they were on their way to its headquarters and wanted to speak with a handful of specific employees.

The auditors refused to allow USDA lawyers to be present for the interviews, and after allowing one employee to talk, department officials stopped the interviews and told the investigators to leave the building, Kelly said.

"We are not interested in having our employees potentially put themselves at risk when they have not yet been advised of their rights and when we were not allowed to provide counsel," Kelly said. "We also pointed out to them that while they hold themselves out to be criminal investigators, GAO is an arm of Congress and has no authority to investigate violations of criminal law."


John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who for years has criticized the Agriculture Department on civil rights issues, said the development shows that the department is not open about its handling of civil rights complaints.

"We think it's appalling that the USDA would go this far to obstruct civil rights," he said. "It's obvious that they have something to hide."

Hey--civil rights? Remember those? Now, why would the Bush administration have a problem making sure people aren't having their civil rights violated?

In March 2006, Bradley Schlozman was appointed interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo. Two weeks earlier, the administration was granted the authority to make such indefinite appointments without Senate confirmation. That was too bad: A Senate hearing might have uncovered Schlozman's central role in politicizing the civil rights division during his three-year tenure.

Schlozman, for instance, was part of the team of political appointees that approved then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's plan to redraw congressional districts in Texas, which in 2004 increased the number of Republicans elected to the House. Similarly, Schlozman was acting assistant attorney general in charge of the division when the Justice Department OKd a Georgia law requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. These decisions went against the recommendations of career staff, who asserted that such rulings discriminated against minority voters. The warnings were prescient: Both proposals were struck down by federal courts.

Schlozman continued to influence elections as an interim U.S. attorney. Missouri had one of the closest Senate races in the country last November, and a week before the election, Schlozman brought four voter fraud indictments against members of an organization representing poor and minority people. This blatantly contradicted the department's long-standing policy to wait until after an election to bring such indictments because a federal criminal investigation might affect the outcome of the vote. The timing of the Missouri indictments could not have made the administration's aims more transparent.

Apparently, we're going to have to turn over a lot of rocks in order to figure out whether or not each Federal agency has been protecting the Civil Rights of every American. Since they can't protect us from standing water, terrorism, religious bigotry, the chickenhawk Republican crime wave, or the mortgage industry, how much do you want to bet those rocks are hiding a whole lot we don't know?

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