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Diversity groups get big chunk of Ag Department conference spending

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

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Federal officials have spent more than $6 million since 2008 sending hundreds of U.S. Department of Agriculture employees to conferences focused on minority recruitment, anti-discrimination personnel practices and diversity training.

Most of the money paid for sending USDA employees to meetings of professional organizations that represent minority workers on the government payroll, while the balance went for workforce diversity training and recruitment events, according to an analysis by The Washington Examiner.

Agriculture Department officials refused to provide details about the spending for fiscal years 2008 through 2011. During that four-year period, USDA spent almost $56 million on conferences. The department is required to post data on its conference spending on the Internet. (See The Examiner's interactive map and spreadsheet of all of USDA's recent conference spending.)

About three-fourths of USDA's total workforce of 92,530 employees are white, according to 2011 data from the agency. About 56 percent are men.

The most expensive diversity conference was a $1.2 million event in Kansas City in March 2010 attended by about 600 employees of the agency's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

It was jointly hosted by professional groups representing black, Hispanic and Asian NRCS employees.

In recent years, the USDA has settled a series of class-action lawsuits charging lending discrimination brought by black, Hispanic, female and Native American farmers at a cost of more than $4 billion.

The joint conference was meant to cost less than previous years, when USDA paid to send employees to each particular group's gatherings in multiple locations. Even so, the Kansas City meeting turned out to be USDA's second-most expensive conference in four years, according to agency reports obtained by The Examiner.

The number-one thing is that the taxpayers get a well-rounded employee. -Terry Cosby, vice president, National Organization of Professional Black NRCS Employees

No similar event has been held since the Kansas City conference, and none is planned, said Terry Cosby, vice president of the National Organization of Professional Black NRCS Employees, one of the host groups.

The 2010 conference, as well as prior events put on by the outside employee organizations, included sessions on civil rights and diversity training that USDA employees are required to take, Cosby said.

Much of that training is now being done using Internet courses and video conferencing, he said.

The meetings also allowed NRCS employees to talk with top department officials, served as a recruitment opportunity for minority job applicants and enabled attendees to meet with individual farmers, many of whom were minorities who have historically been underserved by the USDA, Cosby said.

"The number-one thing is that the taxpayers get a well-rounded employee," Cosby said. "We are a technical agency and we work with individuals on the ground, on their farm, on their land. When the employee goes out to work with that individual, what the taxpayers are seeing is someone who is sensitive to the needs of all of the (people) of this country, whether you are black, Oriental, Hispanic or whatever. The employees are there to serve and the training like this helps them do that job."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime critic of the agency's conference spending, said he has no problem with diversity conferences in particular.

But the USDA events highlight the department's long-standing unwillingness to limit conference spending. Most legitimate training done at the conferences can be accomplished using video and Internet technology, Coburn said.

Building camaraderie in face-to-face gatherings is nice, but something Americans can't afford with the nation in debt $16 trillion, he said.

"If you are going to train on diversity, you can train on diversity," Coburn said. "You don't have to have a conference on diversity. We are broke, so we don't get the perks."

Outside non-profit groups that represent USDA workers are typically the ones that put on the diversity conferences. The agency pays expenses and registration fees.

In the two years prior to the Kansas City conference in 2010, USDA spent about $2.3 million to send more than 1,460 of its workers to meetings put on by outside organizations representing minority federal employees.

The two most expensive had virtually identical price tags of $386,000: a 2009 conference in Sacramento for Asian federal workers and a 2007 conference in Minnesota for Hispanic NRCS employees.

Close behind was a National Organization of Professional Black NRCS Employees conference in Atlanta in December 2008, which cost $383,000. Two other in-house conferences during that time had higher price tags of $562,000 and $629,000.

The most recent diversity conference for USDA was put on by Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences in April 2011, according to the USDA conference database, which runs through June 2011. Twenty agency employees attended that event in Overland Park, Kansas, at a cost of $18,104.

Mark Flatten is a member of the Washington Examiner's special reporting team and can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com. Data editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story. She can be reached atjpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

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