Ag appropriators seem dissatisfied with IG performance | TheFencePost.com

Ag appropriators seem dissatisfied with IG performance

estifying last week at a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee budget hearing on the Office of Inspector General, from left: Deputy Inspector General Ann Coffey; Peter Pardis Sr., acting assistant inspector general for investigation; Inspector General Phyllis Fong, and Gil Harden, assistant inspector general for audit. Questions at Tuesday’s hearing ranged from civil rights within the department to Chinese acquisition of American trade data.
Photo by Zachary Silver/The Hagstrom Report

Several members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee appeared dissatisfied with the pace of the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Inspector General’s work at a hearing last week as Inspector General Phyllis Fong asked for a $2 million increase in the IG budget to $100.3 million.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., was the most critical, citing dissatisfaction with the schedule for new pork slaughterhouse inspections rules, the slowness in an investigation of trade aid payments, and the lack of an investigation into payments to the American subsidiary of JBS, a big Brazilian meat company that has been accused of corruption.

Fong said that the pork slaughterhouse inspection audit would not be released until at least April. But DeLauro said the companies are expected to commit to the new program by March 20 and said Congress needs the audit before that time.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said that his mother has heard reports of the increase in meat processing line speeds and is now afraid to eat pork because she thinks it may not be safe.

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“… by the Inspector General Act of 1978, amended in 2008, you have independent authority and responsibility to ensure that taxpayers dollars do not continue to flow to a company that is engaged in criminal behavior. Are you going to conduct an investigation?”

DeLauro also said she is concerned about government payments that have gone to JBS, which she described as “corrupt.” DeLauro said she had asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to call on the IG to investigate the millions of dollars of procurement awards through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in addition to more than $90 million the corporation received in 2018 through USDA’s trade aid program.

But Perdue has declined to get involved because the Justice Department is also investigating JBS, DeLauro said.

Fong replied she and her staff “are aware of these allegations as reported by you and the media” and “we are doing what we believe to be appropriate at this time.” But she also declined to discuss any IG activities on the situation in public.

DeLauro reminded Fong that “by the Inspector General Act of 1978, amended in 2008, you have independent authority and responsibility to ensure that taxpayers dollars do not continue to flow to a company that is engaged in criminal behavior,” and asked “Are you going to conduct an investigation?”

Fong replied, “We are also required by the IG Act to appropriately coordinate with the Department of Justice,” and declined to comment on whether she would use the IG’s independent authority to investigate.

DeLauro continued, “No comment. That means we don’t know. And whether or not your authority is being challenged in any way, it is.”

“You are independent. That’s what makes the IG so critically important to all of us up here. I’ll make one final comment to you, because in your testimony you talk about workers’ safety and pride yourselves on dealing with workers’ safety.

“JBS subsidiaries have engaged in the litany of practices leading to violations of labor, environmental, food safety laws, investigation by The Washington Post. (In) 2015-2018, JBS has the highest rate of serious worker injuries — those involving amputation, hospitalization, among all meat companies in the United States. And the second highest rate of serious injuries among all companies in the United States. A subsidiary that’s getting over $100 million dollars, investigate. Use your authority,” DeLauro said.

Fong and her staff testified that they have begun an investigation in the trade aid program, but she does not expect to release a report until later this year.

“Your delay in dealing with this means that this program is going to continue to move in the direction that it has been moving, and we have no information about waste, fraud, abuse under, overpayments — we don’t have any investigation of $100 million that’s going to this corporation,” DeLauro said. “And yet, we spent a heck of a lot of time dealing with $1.27 billion dollars to food assistance aid to Puerto Rico.”

DeLauro also said she was “shocked” that Fong’s testimony did not mention oversight of a $28 billion trade aid package.

“I also want to say that 43% of your time in 2019 was investigating the (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program),” DeLauro said. “Why isn’t there a comparable percentage of looking into a program which universally is not directed, is not going to the struggling farmers and ranchers out there? … I think that we are a little out in where we’re focusing our attention in the inspector general’s office.”

OTHER QUESTIONS

That was the most impassioned of a few sparring matches between members of the subcommittee and Fong, but other members also asked for investigations.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., began his questioning by proposing to Fong, “What should I ask you?”

“I have a construct of various specific questions here, and we can go to that, but I’d rather you tell me what I should see,” Fortenberry said.

Fong’s response to such a general question was vague, but Fortenberry persisted, asking “Is China stealing our data?”

Fong replied that her office is “very aware of the general threat of other countries — more than one” and “if there were briefings to be had we would do it in another setting.”

Fortenberry inquired about unsafe storage of American food aid, whether it be due to going rotten or rodent infestation, as made clear in a recent audit into the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Fong reaffirmed that steps are being taken to address the issue and said AMS did not execute the appropriate amount of oversight. Assistant Inspector General for Audit Gil Harden said the part of the food aid that was impacted was “a very small fraction.”

Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Sanford Bishop, D-Ala., the chairman of the subcommittee, pressed Fong to ensure that the department’s Office of Civil Rights is being held to the highest standard, especially after its boss, Naomi Earp, resigned in January.

“Out of more than the 300 civil rights complaints filed by employees in 2019, the department only determined wrongdoing in two cases,” Lee noted.

Fong responded that her office is in the midst of an audit to see how effectively the Office of Civil Rights is handling complaints, and she said she plans to have another audit this year to look at “employee complaint processing.”

Rep. John Moonlenaar, R-Mich., inquired about best use of funds overseen by the OIG, and how much OIG was able to recover.

“This past year, the $2.2 billion in audit results was a very unusual year for us,” Fong said. “Usually we don’t report that volume of dollars. And most of it is attributed to the audit we did of the EQIP (Environmental Incentives Program) in NRCS (the Natural Resources Conservation Service). We had to exercise quite a bit of persuasion to reach management decision on those recommendations.”

Fortenberry said that, while it is “important we follow through” on trade aid, “it does seem important that SNAP aligns with budget as a whole.” The SNAP program is the biggest budget item at USDA.

Fortenberry said that Fong’s testimony “proves your work is of good value,” but he said it would be better if she could quantify the amount of money that agencies are able to reclaim after IG audits.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said she was frustrated that a USDA-led study in 2018 into the Rainy River watershed in her home state was called off 20 months into the 24-month examination period, and despite promises from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, it has still not been completed.

Fong and Harden said they would meet with McCollum’s staff to discuss looking into the situation.

In her testimony, she noted that in fiscal year 2019, OIG audit and investigative work resulted in potential monetary results totaling over $2.5 billion and that her office published 33 final audit reports and made 185 recommendations to strengthen and improve USDA programs and operations and completed one inspection with five recommendations.

“Our investigative work during the same period led to 451 convictions, with potential results totaling more than $289.1 million,” Fong said.

For fiscal years, 2015–19, OIG’s appropriations totaled approximately $485.3 million and the potential dollar impact of OIG’s audits and investigations was $4.8 billion, resulting in cost savings and recoveries of $9.89 for every dollar invested, Fong said. ❖


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