WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hundreds of civil rights complaints have piled up at the Agriculture Department because of the inept, disorganized staff responsible for handling them, federal investigators said Tuesday.

The ``complaints system is in total disarray,'' USDA's inspector general, Roger Viadero, told the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Viadero, who completed an investigation of the department's civil rights office in March, said files were poorly maintained, complaints were not properly tracked and managers were not held accountable for missing deadlines.

James Robertson, who oversaw an investigation of the civil rights office for the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said it lacked qualified personnel. The office has been widely viewed inside USDA as a ``dumping ground'' for the department's disgruntled employees. he said.

USDA officials said that they had taken steps both to process complaints more quickly and to prevent discrimination against employees and farmers.

``We are not here to tell you that our problems are fixed. We're here to tell you that we take them seriously, and that we are doing everything we can to fix them,'' said Paul Fiddick, the department's assistant secretary for administration.

USDA last year settled a lawsuit with black farmers who claimed that the department had systematically discriminated against them and now faces a similar lawsuit brought on behalf of American Indian farmers. At the same time, the department also has 1,800 pending discrimination complaints brought by its own employees.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the department's civil rights record ``is just abysmal and I hope we can get it resolved.''

The chairman of the Senate committee, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, said there was a lack of accountability in USDA ``from the highest level of management to the county supervisor in the field.''

The number of discrimination complaints filed by farmers and other beneficiaries of USDA programs has fallen from 1,261 during the 1999 budget year to a projected 650 for the 2000 budget year, which ends Sept. 30, Fiddick said. However, about 450 of the complaints filed last year are still pending.

The number of complaints filed by the department's own employees is about average for the federal government, Fiddick said.

USDA, which has 100,000 workers, ranks fifth among major departments in the rates at which its employees file discrimination complaints, behind the Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation departments, he said.

USDA receives about 835 such complaints a year and processes an average of 744 annually.

Meanwhile, black farmers continue to complain that the department hasn't fired employees responsible for discriminating against them.

The lawsuit itself ``appears to be another example of hollow promises'' because of the number of farmers who have had their claims denied, said John Boyd, a Virginia tobacco grower who is president of the National Black Farmers Association.

Some 22,000 farmers have filed claims. About 18,000 of those have been processed and 11,000 have been approved. The claims are reviewed by an independent company.

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On the Net: USDA: http://www.usda.gov