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Alledged USDA Race Remark Probed

June 4, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department’s inspector general is investigating claims by a black farmer that an agency lawyer used a racial epithet in referring to him during a telephone conference call.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said in a formal complaint that the word was used on May 27 by Teresa Gruber, counsel to August Schumacher, the undersecretary for farm and foreign agriculture.

At the conclusion of a call on black farmer issues, Boyd told reporters today that Gruber, apparently thinking he and another farmer had already hung up, said to Schumacher:

``That’s the nigger who called for your resignation. Why would you talk to him?″

According to Boyd, Schumacher replied: ``Yes, that’s OK.″

Boyd, a Virginian who has led a campaign to get redress for past USDA discrimination against black farmers, said he was appalled by the language and called at a news conference for Gruber to be fired.

``To have a white person actually say the N-word to you, it feels like I was wounded by a bullet,″ Boyd said. ``That is not acceptable. We will not tolerate it.″

Schumacher, in a written statement released today, said Boyd’s allegations are ``completely false″ and that ``we treat all of our customers with the utmost dignity and respect.″

Nonetheless, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman is ``deeply concerned″ and has asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate, spokesman Tom Amontree said.

Gruber did not return a telephone call today seeking comment.

The incident comes just as Congress and a federal judge are wrestling with how to compensate hundreds of black farmers who were discriminated against in years past when they were denied crop loans and other benefits. The Agriculture Department has acknowledged past discrimination, but Glickman has repeatedly said those days are over.

Some of the department’s own employees, however, don’t think they are.

``We are shocked, outraged and angry over allegations of the issuance of the most offensive of racial slurs towards a member of the public,″ said James Vollmer, a rural loan officer who is steward of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local at the department.

``Those top officials involved in abuses need to find work elsewhere,″ Vollmer said.

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