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USDA Oversight of Civil Rights Complaints

OIG evaluated OASCR’s oversight of the civil rights complaints process.

Audit Report: 60601-0001-21
Published: 09/22/2021
View Report PDF
Fast Facts

BACKGROUND

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) is responsible for making final determinations on complaints of discrimination filed by any person or group of persons who believe they have been subjected to prohibited discrimination in a USDA program. The Secretary of Agriculture established the position of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to comply with the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

In October 2018, OASCR realigned and reorganized to streamline the delivery of program complaint services at the mission area level and ensure USDA projects a unified voice on all civil rights issues affecting program recipients, customers, and applicants. Within OASCR, the Center for Civil Rights Enforcement supports OASCR’s mission largely through its program directorates—the Program Complaints Division (PCD) and the Program Adjudication Division (PAD).

Program Complaint Process

The program complaint process begins in PCD’s Intake Division, which receives complaints from persons alleging discrimination in USDA’s Federally conducted or assisted programs. PCD determines which Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and policies the complaint pertains to, and chooses a course of action as discussed below.

Administrative Closure

OASCR can administratively close a complaint at any stage in the process if it determines that procedural grounds exist warranting administrative closure, such as: untimely filing of a complaint, lack of jurisdiction, failure to state a claim, failure of the complainant to pursue the complaint, settlement, or voluntary withdrawal. If PCD’s Investigations Division proposes to close a complaint administratively, the investigator will prepare a recommendation for closure (RFC), which is then provided to the Adjudication Division to approve and close the complaint.

Programmatic Referral

If the complaint states an issue pertaining to a USDA agency, but does not include a jurisdictional basis of discrimination covered under the civil rights statutes, the complaint is forwarded to the respective agency for review and processing as a programmatic referral.

Investigation

If a complaint is accepted for investigation, PCD’s Intake Division converts the case file to a complaint and issues an acceptance letter to the complainant conveying the issues OASCR will investigate based on the allegations. PCD’s Investigation Division then obtains an agency position statement and conducts an investigation to gather the facts and evidence that will be used in OASCR’s determination.

The assigned investigator determines the facts and evidence surrounding the complaint and establishes a fact-based and evidence-supported record of the accepted allegations. After the investigation has been completed, the investigator prepares a report of investigation (ROI).
After PCD transmits the ROI to PAD, the assigned adjudicator within PAD reviews the ROI, analyzes the evidence, applies the applicable laws, and drafts a final agency decision (FAD) on whether discrimination was present. If OASCR determines that discrimination occurred—or if the issue is resolved through a settlement—the Compliance Division monitors to ensure all parties comply with the agreements and implement corrective actions.

Program Complaints Relating to the Food and Nutrition Service and Rural Development-Assisted Programs

Through memoranda of understanding (MOU), USDA established agreements to coordinate civil rights program complaint processing with the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to the MOU with FNS, OASCR refers any program complaints relating to FNS programs to FNS officials to evaluate and process the complaints. A similar MOU with HUD states that USDA will refer any complaints alleging a potential Fair Housing Act (FHA) violation in an assisted program to HUD. Investigations and resolutions of FHA-related complaints are coordinated with HUD, with Rural Development serving as an intermediary between OASCR and HUD. Although program complaint processing was coordinated with these agencies, OASCR retains responsibility, oversight, and final authority for these complaints.

Program Complaints Management System

OASCR processes all program complaints in its Program Complaints Management System (PCMS). PCMS is a web-based database that allows OASCR to track, process, and manage complaints. Users can process, store, and view complaints, including case events, contact information, electronic documents, and any other associated correspondence. PCMS allows each user to be given a role with specific permissions regarding data entry, updating, deleting, and queries. OASCR also uses PCMS to develop internal and external reports, including OASCR’s annual Farm Bill Report to Congress, regarding civil rights complaints, resolutions, and actions.

Prior Audits

In 2012, we reported that OASCR needed to strengthen its procedures for settlement agreements so that it could support its decisions, process cases timely, and report them accurately. Specifically, we determined that:

  • •OASCR needed to develop operating procedures that would allow it to complete cases in a timely manner;
  • data contained in PCMS did not accurately depict the Department’s activities regarding complaints that resulted in settlement agreements; and
  • OASCR’s official case files did not always contain the documentation needed to support the decisions made by its officials when reaching settlement agreements in civil rights cases.

To address these concerns, we issued a total of five recommendations. We determined that all five recommendations made in this report were related to our current audit objective. Although OASCR agreed to take corrective action to address all five prior Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommendations in August 2012, we note in the findings of this report that control weaknesses continue to exist.

In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that OASCR needed to address several fundamental concerns about resolving discrimination complaints. Specifically:

  • OASCR lacked specified time frames and management controls for resolving complaints;
  • OASCR lacked credible data on the numbers, status, and management of complaints;
  • GAO questioned the quality of complaint investigations;
  • GAO questioned the integrity of final decision preparation;
  • Much of the data that USDA reported to Congress and the public on the participation of minority farmers in USDA programs was unreliable, according to USDA; and
  • OASCR’s strategic planning did not address key steps needed to ensure USDA provided fair and equitable services to all customers and upheld the civil rights of its employees.

We determined that three of six recommendations made in this report were related to our current audit objective. Although OASCR agreed to take corrective action to address GAO’s concerns in October 2008, we note in the findings of this report that control weaknesses continue to exist.

OBJECTIVES

Our objective was to evaluate OASCR’s oversight of the civil rights complaints process. Specifically, we evaluated OASCR’s controls to ensure that program complaints are processed in accordance with applicable regulations, policies, and procedures and resolved in a timely and efficient manner. Additionally, we followed up on prior audit recommendations related to the program complaint process.

Due to the age of the prior audit recommendations provided by OIG and GAO, we did not report on the follow up of prior audit recommendations separately in a specific finding or section of this report. Rather, similar issues identified within prior audit reporting and addressed by prior audit recommendations were incorporated into our current findings and recommendations where applicable. (See Findings 1, 2, 4, and 6.)

WHAT OIG FOUND

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) is responsible for making final determinations on complaints of discrimination filed by any persons who believe they have been subjected to prohibited discrimination in a USDA program.

We concluded that, overall, OASCR needs to develop a stronger internal control environment over its civil rights program complaints processing to ensure that complaints are timely and appropriately handled, and that OASCR achieves established goals and objectives. First, OASCR did not timely process civil rights program complaints. Specifically, in fiscal year (FY) 2019, OASCR averaged 799 days to process program complaints compared to the 180 day standard. Furthermore, two other agencies that OASCR coordinated with to resolve complaints took more than 220 days and more than 600 days, respectively, to process complaints.

We also determined that 9 of 28 complaint determinations and closures were not adequately supported and processed. Additionally, OASCR missed an opportunity to track and measure USDA’s progress in achieving the Department’s civil rights goals and objectives. Finally, these issues could have been identified and better rectified had OASCR used its strategic plan to measure or assess its progress toward established goals and objectives relating to program complaints.

We accepted management decision on 10 of the 21 recommendations. Further action from the agency is needed before management decision can be reached on the remaining recommendations.

Redaction Notice

This report contains sensitive information that has been redacted for public release due to concerns about the risk of circumvention of the law.