Yesterday marked the start of the most critical phase in our four-year legal battle over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s refusal to release public audit and financial documents related to Beef Checkoff Program spending. By law, farmers and ranchers are mandated to pay into the government fund for research, promotion, and development of markets for beef, but concerns arose after an audit found gross misuse of the program funds by the government’s primary contractor, a beef-industry lobbying group. Our lawsuit, filed in 2014, has finally begun its summary judgment phase with a court decision expected in early Spring 2019 as to whether the audit and financial records must be released to the public.
OCM initially filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2013 to reveal the activities and spending of the Beef Checkoff Program following multiple troubling program audits. A 2010 partial audit of the equivalent of nine days of spending found numerous irregularities, requiring the primary checkoff contractor, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), to return over $200,000 to the government. These irregularities included improper payment for expenses, including spousal travel, golf tournaments, and prohibited lobbying activity. A full government audit of the program that ensued was mired in controversy, as released documents showed agency “heartburn” and fear of “embarrassment” over an audit report that was “reworked,” “transformed,” and “rebooted.”
USDA failed to comply with OCM’s FOIA request, so in 2014 OCM filed the ongoing lawsuit to force the USDA to release the government audit documents and financial records. We are still waiting for answers. Since 2014, USDA and NCBA have stalled the release of the information in court. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report calling out USDA for its lack of transparency and oversight over the Beef Checkoff Program. The same year in the courtroom, USDA turned over more than 12,000 pages of financial and audit documents that had been almost completely blacked-out and redacted.
The case has completed the records-production and processing phase and is now in the summary judgement phase. Yesterday, USDA and NCBA were required to file opening briefs for summary judgment, in which USDA argued that it had turned over all of the documents it is going to release. Unfortunately for America’s family farmers and ranchers, that means virtually nothing. On January 9, 2019, OCM will file opposition to those briefs and a motion to compel USDA to release the records it has withheld. Each party will then get two to three weeks to reply. After the briefing ends in February, the court will decide whether to hold a hearing, and then will issue a decision.
As OCM founding member and Mississippi cattle producer Fred Stokes stated in today’s press release: We strongly support a transparent Beef Checkoff Program that works for the hardworking family farmers and ranchers who pay into the program. We have a right to know how our government and its contractors are spending our mandatory assessments.
We won’t stop fighting until America’s farmers and ranchers have the truth.
–Organization for Competitive Markets
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Organization For Competitive Markets
P.O. Box 6486
Lincoln, NE 68506