By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. - A California member of the House of Representatives' agriculture committee is questioning U.S. Department of Agriculture cultural-sensitivity training sessions from which video footage has gone viral on the Internet.
The government-watchdog organization Judicial Watch released footage last week showing USDA staffers being led by a facilitator to chant, "The pilgrims were illegal aliens!" and "If we work for a federal agency, we've discriminated in the past."
The organization says federal documents show the USDA paid the facilitator, Samuel Betances, and his firm nearly $200,000 in 2011 and 2012 for their part in the agency's "cultural transformation" program. Betances held at least 16 such sessions with employees last year, according to the documents.
Freshman Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said he questions the expenditure as Congress has been debating budget cuts and tax increases to address the federal deficit.
"It's one of the silliest things I've heard in a long time," LaMalfa said. "In ... the fiscal mess we're in, it's an outrageous example of a waste of money, a waste of staff time and a political agenda that many, many people would not agree with.
"How can you be an illegal immigrant at a time when there is a country without formal borders?" he said. "It's politically correct silliness."
The USDA did not respond to the Capital Press' requests for comment about the Judicial Watch report and video footage, which have been trumpeted by conservative blogs and news sites.
The agency has taken many steps in recent years to bolster its civil-rights record, attempting last year to improve a claims process for female and Hispanic farmers who say they faced discrimination from the agency.
In addition, thousands of black farmers were granted reparations for alleged racial discrimination by the USDA in the 1980s and 1990s under legislation signed by President Barack Obama.
In a memo to USDA employees in 2009, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for "a new era of civil rights" and ordered a comprehensive program to improve the agency's record, according to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
However, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton called the cultural-sensitivity sessions a "disgraceful" example of "indoctrination."
"This 'cultural transformation' program has nothing to do with improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the USDA workforce and everything to do with brainwashing federal employees," he said in a statement.
The organization obtained the video footage and federal documents as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request it filed last May. According to the federal documents, most employees responded positively to the training, although one said it was "insulting" and another complained it "only puts up further divisions between people" by pointing out differences.
LaMalfa said he will study the documents and video footage further and will raise the issue when Vilsack appears before the committee for an upcoming question-and-answer session. He said he found the chanting a bit disconcerting.
"If you happen to walk into that meeting room when that's going on, you wonder if it's some kind of strange ritual or something," he said. "What are they doing in there?"
U.S. Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome
Judicial Watch: http://www.judicialwatch.org/
Rep. Doug LaMalfa: http://lamalfa.house.gov/