Sen. Harkin Requests Follow-up Investigation into USDA's Failure to Enforce Packers and Stockyards Act
Requests Inspector General's probe into USDA’s Office of General Counsel’s failure to enforce law designed to prevent anti-competitive practices in livestock and poultry markets
In a letter to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General (OIG) Phyllis Fong, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today called for a follow-up investigation into the Department’s failure to enforce the competition provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act. Harkin’s request today asks the OIG to determine if USDA’s legal arm, the Office of General Counsel (OGC), is failing to help pursue investigations and enforcement actions against anti-competitive practices in the marketplace. A Harkin-commissioned OIG investigation released earlier this year found widespread failure by USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) in enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act for over five years and efforts within GIPSA to conceal its inactivity. Questioning by Harkin at an oversight hearing of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry showed virtually no communication and coordination by USDA’s OGC with GIPSA personnel to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act’s competition protections.
“America’s livestock producers deserve to know that USDA’s lawyers are not asleep on the job.” Harkin said. “It’s unacceptable that GIPSA failed in its responsibility to investigate anti-competitive practices and OGC simply looked the other way. That is why I’m asking the Inspector General examine OGC’s capabilities and commitment to enforcing the law.”
USDA’s GIPSA has the responsibility to initiate and develop investigations into complaints of unfair, deceptive or anti-competitive practices in the livestock and poultry marketplace. OGC is the legal counsel for all of USDA and its agencies, and has the responsibility to provide legal advice and representation to aid in investigating cases and pursuing enforcement actions against violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
“OGC shares the responsibility with GIPSA to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act,” Harkin said. “If OGC is not committed to enforcing the law, making needed changes at GIPSA won’t mean anything. Both GIPSA and OGC must actively work together.”
Previous audits conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 and OIG in 1997 and again in 2006 all revealed that inadequate coordination between GIPSA and OGC severely undermined enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. GIPSA has pledged to improve coordination and seek legal counsel from OGC; however, it is unclear if OGC is currently committed to pursuing investigations involving anti-competitive practices.
Harkin requested that OIG examine the following:
- Determine if at any time OGC has pressured or discouraged present or past GIPSA employees from pursuing investigations of anti-competitive practices.
- Evaluate if the working relationship between OGC and GIPSA broke down, preventing GIPSA from referring cases to OGC or causing GIPSA to develop bureaucratic systems to avoid even having to work with OGC.
- Determine if OGC has the staffing and professional expertise to handle complex anti-competitive investigations.
- Evaluate if conflicts or disagreements arise over interpretation of the Packers and Stockyards Act between GIPSA and OGC that could undermine the development and execution of anti-competitive investigations.
- Assess whether OGC is taking too strict or narrow interpretation of the Packers and Stockyards Act and case law, preventing meritorious investigations of anti-competitive practices from moving forward.
Harkin has introduced the Competitive and Fair Agricultural Markets Act of 2006, legislation designed to bring broad and sweeping changes to USDA to more effectively enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act. Harkin’s bill would reorganize USDA by creating an Office of Special Counsel whose sole purpose is to investigate and prosecute violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This reorganization would allow for improved enforcement of the Act by removing layers of bureaucracy at USDA.
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