After 4 Years, Senate Approves Dorr for USDA

Ending a four-year battle, the Senate on Thursday confirmed Thomas Dorr (search) to head the Agriculture Department's rural affairs office after he apologized for making racially insensitive remarks and evading limits on farm payments.

The Senate voted 62-38 to approve the nomination. Dorr sent a letter of apology Thursday to the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman.

"The comment was not intended to be hurtful, I now realize that to many people, it has been, and for this I apologize," Dorr wrote to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search), R-Ga.

"Regarding farm program payment issues, what I did was wrong. I regret that I did it. If I had to do it over, I would not have filed my farming operations as I did with the Farm Service Agency. I hope that other farmers learn from what I did," wrote Dorr, a former Iowa farmer and businessman.

The letter, read by Chambliss on the Senate floor, helped remove an impasse over Dorr's nomination, which President Bush first sent to the Senate in 2001.

It didn't change the mind of Dorr's chief opponent, a fellow Iowan, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin (search).

"This 11th-hour apology and public admission of wrongdoing may be significant, but that is not enough to reward him with a top job at USDA," Harkin said.

"By his own admission, Thomas Dorr set up his farm operations in a manner which evaded the law and then knowingly misrepresented this arrangement to the government," Harkin said. "What is worse, it appears that additional money — perhaps more than $70,000 — is still owed to USDA."

Dorr submitted false paperwork to help his family farm operation escape limits on payments from the government. His family later repaid the Agriculture Department $33,790.

The racially insensitive remarks were made during an Iowa State University meeting in 1999. Saying, "I know this is not at all the correct environment to say this," Dorr noted that the top three economic environments in the state were not ethnically diverse.

"They have been very focused, have been very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background, and there's something there, obviously, that has enabled them to succeed and to succeed very well," Dorr said.

Dorr headed the rural affairs office in 2003, after Bush made a recess appointment that did not require Senate approval, an appointment that lasted only through 2003. Before and since, Dorr has been working at the department as a consultant.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Dorr's leadership has been vital to the administration's vision of a vibrant rural economy.

"I'm confident that Tom returns to the undersecretary position with even greater passion and a renewed sense of commitment to that vision," Johanns said in a statement.