DON'T TREAD ON JESSE
The 1969 Chevy pickup truck that Yuma farmer David Davidson sold to Jesse Van Myers was rusted and in dire need of repair. But that heap of a truck was what Martin Mowbray, an administrator with the Farmers Home Administration, needed to nail Myers.
Myers had been the federal lending authority's supervisor for Yuma County for about a year. He had taken over the office in early 1981--after a promotion from Colorado--and had begun actively lending to Yuma-area farmers while avoiding foreclosures. Myers was also the only African-American employee among the FmHA's 110 Arizona workers.
Mowbray tried to convince Davidson to sign a statement saying Davidson had given the pickup to Myers in exchange for favorable treatment on a loan. If Davidson signed, Myers would be history.
But Davidson told Mowbray the truth--that Myers had seen the truck sitting in the field, unused, and offered Davidson $500 for it.
Mowbray persisted, asking Davidson if he actually hadn't sold it to Myers for $50. Again, Davidson wouldn't budge. He finally signed a statement saying he had sold the truck to Myers for $500.
Mowbray denies it, but Davidson says that as he was leaving, Mowbray said: "I'll get that black-assed nigger if it is the last thing I do."
As it turned out, it wasn't the last thing the FmHA would do to get Jesse Myers.
Far from it.
Over the next decade, bureaucratic tormentors would wage a steady assault on Myers. They would win skirmish after skirmish. They'd call Myers names. They'd discipline him for doing things that white employees routinely got away with. They'd take away his office key, take away his phone, take away his car, take away his pay, take away his authority. They'd even take away his job.
But they would never take away his resolve. Jesse Myers' friends and foes alike agree that he's tenacious. Lesser men would have crumbled under the withering abuse.
It's taken lots of time and patience, but Myers has seen justice prevail. Almost every time the FmHA system has slapped Myers, higher authorities have intervened and ordered remedies. Myers has won full relief, with apologies. He has won thousands of dollars in back pay and legal fees.
The FmHA has even admitted in a federal lawsuit that it discriminated against Myers. Later this month, a federal judge will decide how much the government must pay Myers to correct its abuses.
Even while federal authorities were consistently invalidating the punishment dished out to Myers, his detractors seemed undeterred. His career continued to be a breathtaking progression of personal, professional and racial affronts. Among the latest proposals the FmHA has made to Myers is to transfer him to Alabama, so he can work for an African-American supervisor.
@body:On a Sunday in July, the thermometer outside the kitchen of Jesse Myers' north Phoenix home reads 117 degrees. The smell of chicken soup permeates the house, which he now shares with his father. His mother, who was stricken with cancer when his parents moved in with him, died in June.
Myers, just home from church, removes the coat and vest from the gray, three-piece suit he's wearing. Myers, 42, is stocky and tall. He has a dark mustache. But it is his dark skin, he says, that has caused his problems at Arizona FmHA.
"It's not that I can't get along with white supervisors," he says. "I just can't get along with supervisors that discriminate." All he wants is a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. To that end, Myers has amassed a mountain of documents which tell the story of his career. In what is supposed to be the dining room, he sits at a desk surrounded by boxes upon boxes of files and reports. The ones that don't fit inside he keeps in his garage.
Myers' defense has become his life's work. He feels he's entitled to his bitterness. He's no longer interested in compromising. This perspective colors almost every interaction he has with his co-workers. Whenever there is a confrontation at the office, he always documents it and updates his files.
A native of Texas, Myers worked for the agricultural extension service there and taught agriculture in Florida before landing a job in 1977 as an assistant county supervisor for FmHA in Colorado. At the time, FmHA was still considered the farmers' "lender of last resort." It was where farmers turned when they'd been rejected by every bank. That would change during the Eighties. The FmHA got stingy with small farmers, and many of them were swallowed by corporate farming operations.
In 1981, Myers was promoted to Yuma County supervisor, charged with making and servicing loans in the area. He was one of the last hires of state director Manuel Dominguez, a Jimmy Carter appointee who, with the changing of the guard in Washington, D.C., was on his way out.
Myers quickly earned a reputation among farmers as a hardworking bureaucrat who cared. He often worked seven days a week. His initial performance reviews were outstanding. He increased the number of borrowers without increasing delinquency rates, which were consistently below the state average.
"The farmers thought the world of him," says Rayburn Moore, a member of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors from 1981 to 1988. "FmHA was trying to keep people from getting loans. They turned down a lot of people who were supposed to get them. He got loans for them."
Myers resisted foreclosures. "He was real cooperative in trying to keep people in their homes," says attorney Anne Ronan, who worked in Yuma at the time. "I didn't see that in the rest of Farmers Home Administration."
But Moore, who is black, knew Myers' days were numbered. "Yuma is something else," he says. "I knew he wouldn't have this job very long. That's a position of power in Yuma. It's not for blacks."
It didn't take long for Myers to clash with the new state director, Richard Smiley, appointed by Ronald Reagan to oversee the FmHA staff and its 8,000 active loans in Arizona.
On top of that, Myers' second in command, Larry McKeighen, had once been the county supervisor himself. McKeighen had been transferred out of Yuma, demoted and transferred back. Myers thought McKeighen would want his old job back, and he was right. Fowler Malone, a building contractor, wrote at the time that "after Myers became McKeighen's supervisor, McKeighen always inferred that Myers was incompetent in an apparent attempt to discredit Myers."
After the confrontational Myers began to have disagreements with his staff members, even criticize them, he became a marked man.
The recriminations took many forms. He was harshly punished for procedural violations that his white colleagues got away with. In the pickup-truck incident, for example, Myers' superiors claimed he had violated a regulation that prohibits employees from doing business with a borrower without the state director's permission. Although it was the first blemish on an otherwise stellar record, Myers' punishment from Smiley was a two-day suspension without pay. A year later, a white FmHA supervisor contracted a borrower to provide feed for the supervisor's cattle. Smiley gave the violator a letter of caution.
Officers for the FmHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture--FmHA's parent agency--portray Myers as a disgruntled worker who believes he is beyond reproach. They say he is disruptive and abuses government property.
"If you keep filing complaints, one day you're going to hit the jackpot," says Walter Dent, national head of the FmHA's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. "I think Jesse Van Myers is one of those guys that overloaded and that tried to use the EEO complaint process to defend everything he wanted to do." Dent and others say Myers has been successful because it's easier to accommodate workers who allege discrimination than fight them in court.
"It has been the policy of the federal government to settle the case whenever you could," says Dent. "The philosophy is, 'Let's just get rid of the case.'"
@body:Jesse Myers' co-workers in Yuma went to great lengths to make his life miserable.
One evening, before Myers was to take an early-morning business trip to Phoenix, he took a government car home with him--a standard practice among workers. Nevertheless, his underlings called police and reported the car stolen. Because a secretary was technically responsible for the car, police made him return it.
Myers was accused of stealing $50 from the office's cash drawer. It was money he borrowed because he couldn't cash a check on a Sunday. He left an IOU and returned the money the next day, informing staff of his actions. But when his supervisor found out, he told the state director, who proposed firing Myers.
A USDA inspector general's investigation found no evidence that Myers intended to steal the money, and Myers was suspended, instead--one of several suspensions that the government has repealed or offered to strike from his employment record.
The accusations continued to fly. When Myers made a trip to appraise property in California, he was accused of taking a government car on a vacation. Smiley called the inspector general in, but no evidence of wrongdoing was found.
Still, those incidents, along with Myers' purchase of the pickup truck, led Smiley to abruptly revoke Myers' authority as county supervisor in March 1982. In punishing Myers for breaking the rules, Smiley himself trampled on FmHA procedures. An EEO counselor later noted that in revoking Myers' authority, "Standard disciplinary steps . . . were not used." Myers claims Smiley didn't even speak to him before the action was taken. Later, after a brief meeting with Myers, Smiley told the counselor that he "would not consider [the proposed] resolution which involved allowing Mr. Myers to have his full authority reinstated."
Farmers and homeowners around Yuma, fed up with the treatment Myers was receiving, circulated a petition demanding Myers be reinstated.
"When I met Mr. Myers the first time, I was surprised to see a government man with intelligence, ability and compassion who could relate to you," Charles Barber, a Yuma homeowner, wrote to the FmHA. "We count ourselves lucky to have Mr. Myers in our area and we want to keep him here. Where is Jesse?"
Jones Osborn, then a state senator from Yuma, wrote to U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini to say he was "deeply concerned about the possibility that Mr. Myers is being forced out of his job."
But the testimonials had little effect. Myers retained his job title, but was not allowed to do his job. He was shipped to work details in other parts of the state while he waited to hear what was to become of him.
On weekends, Myers returned to the Yuma office to pick up his check and be with his live-in girlfriend, whom he would later marry. One Friday, McKeighen reported confronting Myers in the Yuma office and accusing him of taking office files. McKeighen claims Myers threatened him and left. After searching the office, McKeighen admitted that no files were missing. Although there were no other witnesses and Myers denied threatening McKeighen, state director Smiley wrote that Myers' version of the incident was "not sufficient for me to determine that Mr. McKeighen was not truthful when he provided a statement regarding your conduct."
Smiley suspended Myers for 14 days. That suspension would later be revoked.
In a highly unusual move, Smiley ordered a sweeping review of Myers' office while Myers was away from Yuma. That review was followed by a full-scale audit by the USDA inspector general. (Other than the audit of Myers' office, the inspector general says it has no record of any audits of county FmHA offices in Arizona.)
The primary complaint the auditors came up with against Myers was a loan he made to Sydney Berman, a partner in a California avocado operation. The auditors said the loan was out of Myers' jurisdiction and was made to only one of the partners, and not the actual partnership. Regulations require loans be made to the "owner or operator" of a farm.
But Myers noted--and the inspector general acknowledged--that the regulations did not define "owner," and there was no prohibition on lending to a bordering state. Berman did have FmHA loans for several properties he owned in Arizona. Berman tells New Times that while Myers was criticized for making the loan, the government did not try to void it.
The auditors "did not find any case of fraud, abuse or illegal acts and no information came to our attention which indicated problems with overall compliance." Indeed, David Toll, a Yuma office supervisor after Myers, says all but one of Myers' loans were solid. "He only lost one farm to the government," Toll says. Berman says Myers and he were subjected to "witch hunts" based on race and religion. Berman, who is Jewish, is considering filing discrimination charges against FmHA for subsequent problems he encountered.
Moore, the Yuma County Board of Supervisors member, tried to look into the situation, but couldn't get answers from FmHA. "They were clearly trumping up charges against him," Moore says. "If the charges had merit, he wouldn't still be around. Obviously, something was wrong with their investigation."
@body:After Myers' Yuma authority was revoked, state director Smiley detailed him to Casa Grande. Myers had his home and wife-to-be in Yuma, and returned there on weekends. But Smiley decided to take charge of Myers' weekends as well, writing that Myers should stay in Casa Grande "thru the weekend to be on the job early Monday morning."
In Casa Grande, Myers was given little or no work to do. He says he was the only worker who didn't have a key to the office or his own phone.
"He basically just had to sit there all day and not do anything, because they didn't give him any work to do," remembers John Hall, a USDA employee who worked nearby. "He wasn't functioning as an employee. He was not allowed to use the telephone. He just sat there and read manuals."
FmHA officials say they took Myers' phone away because he made too many personal calls. While Myers admits making some personal calls, he says he had little else to do. And several other employees acknowledged making personal calls, too.
By now, Myers was furious over his treatment. As he waited for the EEO to investigate, disagreements with his supervisors became more frequent.
In January of 1984, Smiley lowered the boom. He fired Myers on the same day Myers learned his wife was pregnant.
Myers appealed his termination, and the day before his appeal hearing, the government proposed a settlement. The FmHA said Myers would be eligible for reemployment with the agency and that he would get "strong consideration" for any position he sought around the country. Under pressure from his wife, who hoped to leave the state, he signed the agreement. "It sounded like it would give us a fresh start away from the harassment," Myers says.
But when he applied for new positions, the rejection letters began to pour in--ten in all. In Arizona, FmHA offices went so far as to return his applications, although normal procedure was to keep them on file.
Things got tough. He took a job at Circle K. His wife left him. Myers, who had been vigilant about protecting his clients from foreclosure, lost his own home to foreclosure.
"I was sleeping in my van," he says. "I ate bologna."
After a year of rejections from the FmHA, Myers complained to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears employment complaints against the federal government. He alleged that the Arizona office was sabotaging his applications and wasn't living up to its agreement.
The merit board investigated and agreed with Myers, finding that Arizona officials had failed to inform other states of its agreement with Myers. Furthermore, the merit board found, one FmHA director in another state reported that Smiley had "recommended strongly" against hiring Myers. The board also found that the Arizona office had hired some whites who had less experience than Myers, who was rated as a GS-11.
In its August 1986 decision, the merit board wrote that Myers should have been hired as supervisor of the county office in Safford. When the post came open in the summer of 1984, Myers was the only applicant. But Smiley had rejected Myers, saying the vacancy would be filled by "another applicant." A day before he sent a rejection letter to Myers, Smiley had informed an assistant supervisor in Yuma, a GS-7 rank who was white, that he was being appointed assistant county supervisor in Safford. In February of 1985, after the employee had put in enough time, Smiley named him Safford supervisor.
The board wrote harshly of Smiley's actions: "The selection of an individual who had been a career conditional employee of the agency for only two months over a former GS-11 employee with several years' experience shows that Myers was not given strong consideration."
After an FmHA appeal was denied, Myers was reinstated, effective July 1984.
Smiley, who resigned from the agency in 1985, refused to respond to EEO investigators' inquiries and could not be reached for comment for this story. He did write in a letter to the EEO that "Myers left deep tracks that cannot be covered up by filing an EEO complaint. He was treated fairly in every way and should absolutely have no complaint of any kind."
Even with Smiley gone, Myers' problems would continue.
@body:Back on the job, Myers was assigned to the state office of FmHA in Phoenix, where he soon ran afoul of Joe Velut, chief of Farmer Programs for the state. Myers was spending a great deal of time in the field, doing appraisals.
For one assignment in 1990, Velut instructed Myers to appraise three farms near Willcox. He was given two days to complete the task. Howard Kahlow, supervisor for that area, called the assignment "definitely unreasonable" and advised Myers to try to get more time.
But Myers went ahead and performed the three appraisals, working into the night. On the day he was due back in Phoenix, he left Cochise County at 5 a.m. When he reported to work at 8:10, he was given a letter of criticism from Velut.
An EEO investigation would reveal that in a similar case, a white appraiser was given an equally difficult assignment by Velut, also to do in two days. The appraiser took four days to complete the assignment, but was never criticized.
Then there was the time a computer operator was perusing computer files, and saw a file in Myers' directory titled "Shit." She immediately notified Myers' supervisor, who reviewed Myers' files. They discovered nine files that didn't appear to be government related. That, along with 21 phone calls he had made that were deemed "personal"--15 were to an employee in another USDA office in the same building; four were to his wife--earned Myers a ten-day suspension in September 1991.
His do-nothing days returned. Even the new state director, Clark Dierks, noticed. Dierks sent Velut a memo, saying: "During my walk-through on June 5, I noticed that Mr. Myers appeared to have nothing to do. His desk was clear and he was on the phone. It remains your responsibility to insure that everyone in your section has sufficient work and remains busy and productive."
Mark Finley--a co-worker, not a supervisor--was assigned to review Myers' work for errors. Finley often found items missing, he claims. But he wasn't the most objective of sources, once writing a memo complaining that "Myers has become a real hindrance to the quiet environment with his continuous and repetitious telephone conversations concerning his EEO complaint. Bluntly, I am sick of his loud voice complaining of the same thing over and over again."
Velut wouldn't discuss Myers' performance with New Times. However, in affidavits made during EEO investigations, Velut has denied discriminating against Myers. He claims one performance review, in which Myers was given an unsatisfactory rating, "provides specific illustrations of his nearly constant belligerent and noncooperative behavior with me and with other employees." Velut called Myers a "very abrasive individual" who is "unpleasant to have on my staff."
Velut and Myers had shouting matches on more than one occasion; employees like Charlene Warren, chief of administrative programs for Arizona FmHA, worried that Myers could become violent. "I have serious concerns about what he is capable of doing to me or anyone else that crosses him," Warren says.
But Alan Geyer, who witnessed one confrontation between Velut and Myers, observes, "Joe had confronted Jesse, knew he had him upset, and wasn't going to let the situation die down. Jesse . . . attempted to escape Joe's pressure." Geyer calls Velut "an antagonist."
But it is Jesse Myers who invariably gets punished.
@body:In the past dozen years, there has never been more than a handful of African-American employees at Arizona FmHA. Nationwide, 7 percent of the agency's 12,000 workers are black.
Myers is by far the highest-ranking FmHA black in Arizona, but he is not the only one to complain about inequities.
Serena Fleming, the FmHA's Black Employment Programs coordinator, has filed two EEO complaints. Both, she says, were settled to her satisfaction.
While there are currently three blacks employed by FmHA in Arizona, until recently there were four. Of those four, Fleming says, "One is taking it to court, one filed grievances, one transferred and one hasn't had any complaints.
"When you have a good-old-boys club, if you're not part of it, you're in trouble." She says Myers is seen as a chronic complainer. "Even though what he's saying is valid and he can prove it, the attitude is, 'Oh, well. It's just Jesse.' He isn't willing to compromise, to give an inch. But until recently, they weren't willing to give him an inch, either," says Fleming, who is optimistic that the new state director will improve relations in the office.
There have been problems cited by past employees, too. One African American filed an EEO complaint alleging discrimination; she settled the complaint after getting a job in another government agency.
Julie Williams, a white woman whose deceased husband was African American, also filed an EEO complaint.
"I am a young, white female with children of a different race," she complained. "Since the beginning of my employment with FmHA, I have experienced differential treatment, unfair scrutinizing of my work, and frivolous documentation of almost any conversation, disagreement or question I may ask my supervisor." Williams, who sat near the front of the office, claims she was told not to display her family pictures--which FmHA denies. FmHA later paid Williams $20,000 to settle her complaint, which she said had led her to a forced resignation.
Her troubles were complicated by the fact that she befriended Myers. "I had been warned not to associate with Jesse," Williams tells New Times. "They spent half of their time monitoring him, trying to find something wrong."
@body:After Bill Clinton was elected president in November, the acting FmHA director immediately halted the exhaustive reviews of Jesse Myers' work. The benevolent acting chief also rescinded an order saying that Myers had to get permission to leave his desk.
Things were looking brighter for Myers and his friends. Farmers who had grown disenchanted with the FmHA over the past 12 punishing years were optimistic. They had lived through a vicious farm recession, and many of their peers had lost their farms to foreclosure. At one point, a federal judge ordered a moratorium on FmHA foreclosures until clearer rules could be put into place. When it was lifted, the foreclosures began again. The new secretary of agriculture has imposed a similar moratorium.
The agency didn't seem interested in helping farmers. Last year, Arizona FmHA lent out only 24 percent of the $14.6 million it had available to farmers through guaranteed loans from banks or directly from FmHA. It sent the rest back to Washington, D.C.
Velut insists every qualified applicant got a loan. Farmers disagree and say many don't bother to apply because they know they'll be turned down.
After Clinton's election, farmers went on the offensive, lobbying Senator DeConcini and FmHA. They wanted Myers to be state director.
"We would really like to see Jesse Myers in there," says Chris Claridge, a Safford farmer who heads the Arizona chapter of the American Agriculture Movement. "The people they have in there now don't make any loans, don't want to make any loans. I think Jesse would follow through with what the program was created to do." At least 30 farmers wrote letters recommending Myers for the post. Their recommendations didn't fall on deaf ears. C.L. Harvey, a Clinton campaign adviser from Arkansas, says he lobbied for Myers, as well.
"He was seriously considered," Harvey says. "Myers actually [had done] the hands-on work. He helped people save their farms, and he went to bat for people who would have got caught up in the bureaucratic shuffle. From speaking to farmers and other FmHA workers, it was clear he was the man."
In the end, however, politics as usual won out. DeConcini's choice was Democrat Alan Stephens, a former state Senate majority leader. As is customary, Clinton abided by the U.S. senator's wishes.
"The other guy [Stephens] didn't have any experience. But he was the local guy, the friend of the senator," Harvey says. "In any other state, Jesse Myers would have been the state director.
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