Senate probes USDA waste, fraud

WASHINGTON — The USDA, an agency responsible for managing a wide range of programs from children’s nutrition to the national forests, has an accounting system so outdated that it can’t keep track of billions of dollars worth of assets, according to a number of audits reviewed in a Senate Agriculture subcommittee hearing Sept. 27.


      U.S. Senator Peter G. Fitzgerald, R-Ill., chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on Research, Nutrition, and General Legislation, called the findings “disgraceful.”


      ”This disgraceful lack of accountability is especially troubling because the USDA was warned to address some of these problems as long as a decade ago,” said Fitzgerald.


      Balancing act.


      Roger C. Viadero, the USDA’s Inspector General who recently released reports on the department’s finances, told the subcommittee that the USDA’s books are such a mess that at the beginning of this fiscal year its fund balance differed with the Treasury Department by $5 billion.


      Although subsequent efforts have reduced this difference, it still stands at more than $230 million, according to the Inspector General.


      For the last six years, USDA has not been able to account for many of its $118 billion in assets or the cost of its operations, Fitzgerald said.


      Although some of the audits were released earlier this year, this was the first comprehensive review of the IG’s reports. According to an analysis of government performance reports by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the USDA was one of the worst agencies in the federal government, ranking 22 out of 24 federal agencies.


      Funds shifted. According to the most recent IG report, funds intended for soil conservation programs have been shifted and used for items “such as wall murals, transportation, and bringing civil lawsuits against owners of derelict properties” in urban areas.


      Fitzgerald said the implications of the problems at the USDA reach beyond the agriculture sector of the economy. Many of the troubles have occurred in the USDA’s nutrition programs. In a series of audits, the IG found that funds intended for feeding children at day care facilities under the Child and Adult Care Food Program were provided for addresses that turned out to be empty lots.


      ”The responsibilities of this agency are far too important for us to tolerate financial mismanagement of this magnitude,” Fitzgerald said.


      Other record keeping entries indicate the department cannot substantiate whether its personal property records are accurate. For example, according to testimony by the Inspector General, a recent review of USDA records show a motor vehicle valued at $97 million and a microscope worth $11 million.

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