It may be hard to associate "corruption" with a U.S. government agency (insert dripping sarcasm here), but it's true: Sometimes those stewards of our tax dollars don't spend them very wisely.
At least, that's what cattleman and rancher advocate Michael Callicrate is alleging in a federal suit he has filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he says illegally funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to beef industry lobbyists.
Callicrate also named USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, as well as the Centennial, Colorado-based Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and Beef Promotion Operating Committee, and the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, reported Courthouse News Service.
Callicrate is the owner of Ranch Foods Direct, a Colorado Springs-based "meat packing facility and local farmer's retail market delivering healthful, high quality, naturally tender meats and foods to consumers direct from the ranch," according to the company's website.
Hundreds of millions in political payoffs?
In his suit, the plaintiff asked the court to stop payments to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) under the "Beef Checkoff" program, claiming the taxpayer-funded subsidy is in violation of the Beef Research and Information Act of 1985.
The law was initially passed in 1976 to allow the beef industry to compete better in the marketplace. Under the law, the secretary of agriculture has authority to run a Beef Promotion and Research Order, which is financed by charging beef ranchers $1 per head of cattle. The Beef Checkoff generates about $80 million annually, according to reports.
However, the act "prohibits the use of Beef Checkoff funds for influencing governmental action or policy," the complaint states. Callicrate says even though the beef association is largely a policy and lobbying organization, the organization has received some $200 million in the past six years from government agencies under the Department of Agriculture. He said an independent audit of the association found a number of examples where it used the money for lobbying.
"The audit evaluated a small portion of NCBA transactions charged to the Beef Checkoff in FY 2008, FY 2009, and the first five months of FY 2010, ended February 28, 2010," the complaint says. "Specifically, the audit investigated only 45 expenditures and 25 employees' time sheets for five months."
The suit continues, "According to NCBA's Forms 990, NCBA had total expenses of $110,412,425 in 2008 and 2009, and of that $72,833,595 (approximately 66 percent) came from the Beef Checkoff. However, only a minuscule 45 transactions that occurred during this period were audited by the independent auditor. If the average expense evaluated by the independent auditor was $1,000, the independent auditor examined approximately $45,000 of transactions. This tiny fraction - less than one percent - of the NCBA's Beef Checkoff funds revealed numerous expenditures that violated the Act."
The rancher advocate says the audit has only turned up claims the report turned up what he described as "the tip of the iceberg," and that as a result of it, "NCBA agreed to return the checkoff fund over $216,000 to settle claims of unlawful expenditures."
The suit claims that Callicrate and fellow small-to-medium sized independent ranchers will be irreparably harmed if payments to the NCBA continue.
The suit does not seek a "temporary injunction," which would force the government to suspend its programs until the court rules. Rather, the suit will allow the government to continue operating in a "business as usual" mode until the court rules, which Callicrate hopes will then become a "permanent injunction."
According to his website, Callicrate, of St. Francis, Kan., is an "an independent cattle producer, feedyard owner, business entrepreneur and political activist" who addresses "the rural, social and cultural impacts of current economic trends."