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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday vowed to improve civil rights at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which has been hit by more than 14,000 complaints about racial discrimination since 2000.
The USDA, which has a long history of civil rights complaints from some farmers denied access to USDA benefits, has yet to review about 3,000 of them, said Vilsack, who acknowledged "questions continue to be raised about USDA's handling of complaints.
"There have been unresolved claims. There have been a backlog of claims. I want to close the book on all of those claims," Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists.
"I want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can in the future not to have this magnitude of problems we've had for the last 20 years. It's time to get it past us," he said.
Vilsack said he will be creating a task force to review civil rights complaints lodged since 2000.
The department also is suspending all foreclosures within USDA's Farm Service Agency's farm loan program for 90 days to help financially strapped farmers and to review loans for possible discrimination.
A landmark multimillion-dollar settlement was reached in 1999 after black farmers said USDA unfairly denied their applications for USDA loan and benefit programs and failed to investigate complaints of bias. USDA so far has paid out about $1 billion to compensate black farmers.
Reporting by Christopher Doering and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Christian Wiessner