Published October 04, 2012
The U.S. government paid a Chicago consultant hundreds of thousands of dollars to put on diversity training workshops that, according to one watchdog, included an exercise in which employees were told to chant "our forefathers were illegal immigrants."
Conservative group Judicial Watch made the claim this week as it released a handful of documents pertaining to the program -- and alleged that the sessions held by the Department of Agriculture ended up enforcing political views more than promoting tolerance.
"Instead of being diversity-oriented or tolerance-oriented, it's more about adopting a mindset," said Lisette Garcia, a senior investigator with the group. "It seemed to go so far as to encourage illegal immigration."
But the USDA denied that the workshop was anything more than a training exercise to "examine stereotypes."
"Participants did not chant during these workshops," a department official said. "In one portion of the session, the presenter had participants repeat provocative and potentially offensive phrases as part of an exercise to examine stereotypes. The statements were not reflective of USDA or its policy."
Judicial Watch began to investigate the sessions earlier this year after being approached by a tipster at USDA who was "offended" by them, Garcia said. Judicial Watch claims it has identified at least $200,000 spent by the USDA over the last two years on the company Souder, Betances & Associates.
The USDA later confirmed that amount.
The tipster, Garcia said, described one session in which the speaker led workers in chanting "our forefathers were illegal immigrants" while pounding on the table and getting others in the room to join in.
"How does that fit into the USDA mission at all?" she said. "The price tag makes it more egregious."
It's unclear how much total federal money was spent on these kinds of sessions at USDA and other agencies. Federal contract records show the Department of Defense has also contracted with the company, though it's unclear what that work entailed. The company's website says its clients include an array of federal departments, from Commerce to Energy and Interior, as well as USDA.
"For over a decade Souder, Betances and Associates has been a leader in the field of diversity training and consulting," the company site says.
The USDA did not confirm or dispute the anecdote from Judicial Watch about the illegal immigrant chant. However, in a statement to FoxNews.com, a USDA spokesperson stressed that the sessions were meant to foster diversity and were well-received by employees.
"USDA offers a number of optional workshops and professional development opportunities in order to help employees better serve our customers," the statement said. "The Souder Betances & Associates sessions were designed to foster overall diversity awareness -- not to focus on any specific minority group -- and received positive feedback from employees across the department."
A representative with Souder, Betances & Associates did not return a request for comment.
Judicial Watch apparently has received little documentation from the USDA on the program, but it released an email exchange in which a USDA official discusses the "diversity intelligence advantage course" with an official from the Chicago firm. In one email from January, the USDA official asked about when he might be able to attend the course later in the year.
Another email released by the group showed an analyst at USDA who handles record requests advising other records officers about the Judicial Watch request. The officer said that most would probably issue a "no records denial" but said because of the group's history of lawsuits "I want to at least say a USDA wide search for material was conducted despite ... knowing that most ... agencies will have no records."
Judicial Watch later wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the email "reinforced the expectation of agency noncooperation."