OCM sues USDA for Beef Checkoff audit records

OCM sues USDA for Beef Checkoff audit records

By Tom Johnston on 11/14/2014

The Organization for Competitive Markets is suing USDA’s Office of Inspector General for its alleged failure to fulfill the organization’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for tens of thousands of pages of information on the government’s 2011 audit of the Beef Checkoff program.

A non-profit research organization that advocates for farmers and ranchers, among others, for transparent and competitive agricultural markets, OCM has for 18 months been seeking information based on the apparent discrepancy between OIG’s February 2011 audit report and an independent firm’s findings a year earlier in an audit commissioned by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB).

The CBB-commissioned audit found irregularities that resulted in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association having to return more than $200,000. Those irregularities included improper payment for things such as spousal travel and private loans.

Two years after initiating its investigation that generated more than 3,000 pages of report drafts, OIG released in March 2013 a 17-page report that, OCM argues, “appeared wholly irreconcilable” with the CBB-commissioned audit, to the point of stating that CBB’s relationship with the NCBA complied with federal legislation governing the checkoff. (OIG removed this statement after withdrawing the initial audit report and re-releasing it.)

OIG has located more than 10,000 pages of information, but as of 18 months since OCM filed its initial FOIA request, the agency has produced fewer than 1,000 “relatively innocuous, heavily redacted pages,” said OCM, which through a series of further requests and appeals to OIG contends it has exhausted its administrative remedies and wants a judge to make the agency fork the documents over.

“OCM is confident the records we have requested will clearly demonstrate that NCBA has played fast and loose with U.S. cattlemen’s money,” OCM board member Fred Stokes said in a news release on the group’s website.

A source of controversy, Beef Checkoff reform is now on USDA’s radar, with the agency recently filing a notice requesting comments on its proposal to create and oversee a parallel program in the absence of industry consensus on the existing program.

Attorneys for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed the OCM complaint this week in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. OCM said HSUS is seeking to reform the Beef Checkoff “to prevent misuses of the program for activities detrimental to animal welfare.”

To read the entire OCM complaint, click here.