Only a few people can get away with ignoring Congress. One, apparently, is Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
All but one member of Oregon's congressional delegation sent her a letter on Aug. 17 asking what in the world her inspectors were doing to farmers. Specifically, they wanted to know why three blueberry farmers were victimized using "hot goods" orders to extract fines and confessions. Only Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland, did not sign the letter.
Inspectors from the department claimed that some pickers appeared to be working too fast and, according to their calculations, that meant two pickers were working off the same tickets. According to their logic, some workers were not paid the minimum wage.
Backed only by that conjecture the department then issued a "hot goods" order preventing the fresh blueberries from being sold until the farmers paid a fine and signed a consent judgment. Other experts say it is common to see pickers work faster than the department's calculations allow.
Extortion is a rough term, but that's exactly what the federal labor agency was doing in these cases. If the farmers decided to assert their constitutional rights to a trial, their entire crop would rot. That would, at the least, cost them dearly. At the most it would put them out of business.
How these cases were handled was so far out of line that even state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian voiced his opposition to the tactics. "... I ask that USDOL immediately cease using the 'hot goods' provision to seize perishable goods on Oregon farms and instead use an enforcement tool that does not result in irreparable harm prior to full investigation and a fair process of adjudication," he wrote to Solis on Aug. 15.
Such outlandish tactics have been used elsewhere in the Obama administration.
Just last March the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's habit of jamming fines down citizens' throats over wetlands designations. The court unanimously ruled that an Idaho couple had the right to file an immediate court challenge to the agency's decision to designate their property wetlands.
The couple, Chantell and Michael Sackett, were given a compliance order that labeled a building lot as wetlands and prevented them from constructing a house on it. No provision was made for them to challenge the designation until the EPA had dragged them into court.
Regarding the "hot goods" cases in Oregon, our members of Congress wanted to know:
* Why the farmers were not told of any problems before the "hot goods" orders were issued.
* Why did the department decide to use "hot goods" orders?
* Why does the department ask farmers to waive their rights for future findings of fact or law in consent judgments?
* How can a farmer respond to a "hot goods" order without having his perishable crop under threat?
While the folks at the Labor Department are answering questions, we have a few more:
* Will the agency provide proof that all of the $240,000 taken from farmers went to the 1,101 workers who the department says were shorted? We would like to see the receipts or canceled checks.
* Will it explain why the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable seizures, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens due process, don't apply to these three farmers?
* Is there a limit to the tactics the department will use to extort farmers?
* Will other farmers be similarly victimized in coming years?
One member of the Oregon delegation, Rep. Greg Walden, went on the House floor Monday seeking answers to those questions.
"One hundred and eight days later, we and they do not have those written answers, and that is simply unacceptable," he told the House.
Members of Congress, Oregonians -- and farmers everywhere -- anxiously await Solis' response to these questions.