Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee have written to Stephen Vaden, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be USDA’s top lawyer, seeking more information about the reassignments of at least a dozen department employees, all members of the Senior Executive Service.

Among the questions posed by the senators: “Were any of the reassignments …. made because of the political affiliation of the individual reassigned or because the individual had worked closely with Obama administration leadership officials at USDA? If yes, please explain.”  Vaden's response to that question, provided that same afternoon, was a simple "No."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, and two other Democrats joined the panel’s Republican majority on Dec. 11 when the committee approved Vaden’s nomination. But Stabenow said at the time that she still needed answers about whether the personnel moves involved retaliation. The full Senate has yet to vote on the nomination.

“SES career employees are highly skilled leaders that enable the USDA to provide the highest level of service to our farmers, families and rural communities,” the senators, including Stabenow, wrote Dec. 21 in their letter to Vaden. “It is critically important for us to understand the purpose of these reassignments in order to ensure that all staffing changes are made in the best interest of USDA’s customers.”

Vaden is currently serving as USDA’s principal deputy general counsel. Stabenow earlier this month said that the general's counsel's office appeared to be supervising the reassignments. She wants to know whether the changes were directed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue or the White House. 

In their letter, the senators asked Vaden what role he played, if any, in any reassignment, the basis for the reassignment, and description of how the reassignment will better serve taxpayer interests and the operations and functioning of USDA. Among their 10 questions, they also asked for the reassigned employee’s race, national origin and gender. The lawmakers requested a response by Jan. 11.

They didn't have to wait long. USDA's Communications Office provided a copy of Vaden's detailed response to the Stabenow letter by late afternoon on the same day the letter was written. In it, Vaden said his role in the reassignments was to provide legal advice and counsel and that most consultation was provided by Office of General Counsel staff. 

He also said Perdue gave no consideration to the race, national origin or gender of any of the individuals reassigned, Vaden said that information was not even available to the secretary. 

In addition to Stabenow, who represents Michigan, the letter was signed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

During Vaden’s Nov. 9 confirmation hearing, Democrats also raised concerns about Vaden’s work at the Jones Day law firm, where he helped file briefs in defense of voter registration laws in North Carolina and Ohio. In the case of North Carolina, the courts struck down the laws, which included the requirement of a photo ID, a provision that they said discriminated against African Americans.


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