By James C. Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 15 – A handful of USDA employees have lodged complaints that Communications Director Chris Mather, who was to leave Friday to take a similar post for Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, discriminated in hiring and promotion practices on the basis of age, gender and political preference. Nine grievances have been filed with the Office of Special Counsel against Mather and two other supervisors in the Office of Communications.

Mather, a Chicago political veteran who worked on the 2008 presidential campaign, said the letter included “a litany of factual errors” and suggested that the objections came from those who did not support the “increased accountability, collaborative approach and strategic planning processes we put in place.” A USDA spokesman said that two of the nine complaints, all of which were from four workers, had been withdrawn and two settled with no finding of fault.

The eight current and former employees described “a hostile work environment, retaliation and/or prohibited personnel practice” in a January 31 letter to members of Congress first reported Friday by The Washington Post. “Never in our entire careers have we encountered such egregious, mean and poor management,” their letter said. It was “equated more to a dictatorship” designed “to railroad OC career federal employees out of their jobs,” it added.

Marci Hilt, who retired last year after 43 years in a USDA public affairs career, told the Post that Mather was “the most unprofessional political appointee I’d ever worked with.” Other current and former USDA public affairs specialists offered similar off-the-record appraisals to Agri-Pulse but one suggested that many complaints in the letter were the result of employees resistant to change. Another offered the opinion that Mather’s management manner triggered the complaints. “She probably will fit with Emanuel,” who is notoriously gruff. “It fits her style.”

The letter charged that Mather, along with Deputy Director David Black and Web Services Division Director Amanda Eamich, both of whom are career officials, “pressured several OC staff to retire who are over 55 years old through two buyouts despite these employees saying that they were not ready to retire.” It added that “very few women” were in management and they were at lower pay grades than men. The letter also questioned the circumstances under which Black was promoted from director of the Broadcast Media and Technology Center and Eamich was hired from the Food Safety and Inspection Service and promoted a year later.

In a point-by-point rebuttal, a USDA official said that the early retirement incentive was voluntary and no one was forced to retire. “Of the 81 employees we have now, 11 are under the age of 40 and 71 are over 40. Of the 4 people who were promoted, two are older than 30, two are younger. Of the 14 people hired, five are under 30.” Five of the 4 managers in the office are women and seven females have been promoted or hired. USDA also said that both Black and Eamich were hired competitively or promoted through normal federal personnel procedures.

To read the complaint letter, click HERE.

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