One week after GAO urges transparency, USDA continues to conceal checkoff information
LINCOLN, NE – On November 27, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was required to submit to the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) additional information related to an audit initiated in 2011 of the federal Beef Checkoff Program. USDA confirmed that it has in its possession more than 10,000 pages of additional beef checkoff spending records, but refuses to disclose them. This revelation comes just one week after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that USDA must increase oversight and transparency in the federal checkoff programs, and USDA agreed with those findings.
OCM initially filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2013 to reveal the activities and spending of the federal Beef Checkoff Program following multiple troubling audits of the program. A 2010 partial audit found numerous irregularities, requiring the primary checkoff subcontractor, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), to return over $200,000 to the government. These irregularities included improper payment for such things as spousal travel, policy work, and golf tournaments. USDA failed to comply with the FOIA request, so in 2014 OCM filed a lawsuit to force the USDA to release the government audit documents and financial records showing how cattle producers’ beef checkoff funds are being spent. Seven years after the initial audit, cattle producers are still waiting for answers.
The November 2017 GAO report urged USDA to “consistently review subcontracts to prevent misuse of funds, and ensure documents are on program websites to promote transparency and ensure stakeholders have access to information on program operations.” Despite expressing agreement with the report, USDA’s actions in the court case one week later fly in the face of the recommendations. NCBA has been fighting to keep the checkoff spending information hidden, and USDA appears committed to helping NCBA conceal checkoff records, rather than assuring transparency for the producers it is supposed to be accountable to. NCBA entered the case last year after learning that financial ledgers relating to checkoff funds were among the records OCM was seeking to make transparent.
OCM founding member Fred Stokes said, “One week after GAO condemns USDA for lack of transparency, USDA has the audacity to refuse to disclose thousands of pages of federal beef checkoff spending documents. USDA contends there is transparency in the program but uses every trick in the book to keep secret how the funds are spent from those compelled to pay them. OCM will not stop fighting until the truth is brought to light about how cattle producers’ tax dollars are being expended by the Federal Beef Board, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and others, and we will persevere.”
The November 2017 actions by USDA are the latest in its multi-year attempt to conceal spending records of federal tax dollars. On March 31, 2017, USDA disclosed that it had 12,341 pages of checkoff financial records from the 2013 audit, but only released 175 pages, most of which were already public tax forms. The remaining nearly 12,200 pages of checkoff-related records were completely blacked out—USDA claimed they are confidential.
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