Checkoffs Go Dark

Big Ag’s control of the non-refundable, federally-chartered Research & Promotion programs—more commonly known as commodity checkoffs—reached new heights April 19 when the House Appropriations Committee approved the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $21.3 billion 2017 budget.

Tucked 34 pages into the pending bill’s 217 pages of bureaucratic thatch was this thorn: Since “commodity Research and Promotion boards”—USDA-appointed checkoff boards—“…are not agencies of the federal government, nor… funded with federal funds… the Committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552.”

Section 552 of 5 U.S.C. is the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, the rules of how “each [federal] agency shall make available to the pubic information” on how government works.

In short, the USDA funding bill, approved by a voice vote, will prevent any farmer, rancher, or taxpayer from filing a Freedom of Information request on any aspect of how the 22 federally-mandated checkoffs collect and spend more than $500 million a year.

This move to darkness arrived April 11, when, according to the Capital Press, a Salem, OR weekly ag newspaper, “14 commodity organizations requested the change in FOIA policy on behalf of their related checkoff fee-funded boards” in a letter to the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with USDA funding.

Not surprising, several of the groups that signed the letter have been reprimanded by USDA for illegal use of checkoff money. For example, a May 1993 column (just the second Farm and Food File I wrote) explained how a USDA audit of the relatively new, non-refundable soybean checkoff uncovered “$405,219 of ‘questioned costs’” by the checkoff’s key contractor, the American Soybean Association.

How did a freelance journalist like me working alone in the middle of an Illinois cornfield get the audit results?

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the overlord of all federal checkoffs.

Later, a Feb. 1997 column exposed how the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the chief contractor for the pork checkoff, had hired a Washington, D.C. consulting firm to spy on “activist groups whose philosophies,” it explained, “might have an effect on the pork industry.”

Unbelievably, the “activist” groups NPPC were “monitoring” as “part of an ongoing $100,000 checkoff-sponsored” effort—illegal under checkoff law—included the National Farmers Union and Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs.

Checkoff rule-bending continues. A partial, 2013 USDA audit of the beef checkoff showed that $216,000 had been spent on “non-checkoff activities.” One was an international airline ticket for an official’s spouse.

In 2015, a “FOIA request compelled the American Egg Board,” the egg checkoff, “to turn over documents” that exposed how its leader illegally “tried to organize a public relations campaign against a vegan competitor” because—I’m not kidding—the competitor’s mayonnaise recipe did not include eggs.

Last August, the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled that a federal lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the U.S. and others against the pork checkoff could go forward.

The suit, based on information obtained through a FOIA request, alleges the checkoff’s $60-million purchase of a marketing slogan from the NPPC, its former contractor, now funds “NPPC programs… to influence legislation and government policy,” all illegal under checkoff rules.

Given this checkered past, little wonder big commodity groups are not pushing Congress to declare federal checkoffs off-limits to the FOIA: nearly every time anyone looks, “mistakes”—often whoppers—are found.

But saying federal checkoffs aren’t federal doesn’t mean they’re not. In fact, all were established by a federal body, Congress; all are managed by boards appointed by a federal official, the secretary of agriculture; and all are overseen by an agency within a federal department, USDA.

Moreover, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared checkoffs to be “government speech” in a 2005 beef checkoff case, a phrase most checkoffs cheered at the time.

For Big Ag now to push the House—without one public hearing—to declare otherwise is hypocritical, anti-democratic, and shameful.

But we already know that, don’t we? After all, with more than 20 years of checkoff violations to their credit, most commodity groups that serve as checkoff contractors have little credibility left.

© 2016 ag comm

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