December 11, 2008

US soy farmer group alleges waste and abuse of funds

Millions of dollars paid by US soy farmers are being misused for such things as excessive salaries and lobbying efforts by an organization that manages federally collected "checkoff" funds, according to the producer group American Soybean Association.

The United Soybean Board, which is expected to collect more than US$140 million in checkoff contributions for fiscal year 2008, is directed by a core group of volunteers appointed by the secretary of the US Department of Agriculture.

John Hoffman, ASA president, said Wednesday, "Serious ethical, legal and financial allegations have been raised about how farmer checkoff funds and program activities are being conducted."

The ASA, together with the USDA and Congress created the USB in 1990 to collect and use money contributed by farmers to develop and promote soy and soy products.

"Soy farmers today are paying two to four times more to the checkoff fund than they have historically, and significant allegations of wasteful spending and abuse have emerged," the ASA said Wednesday in a statement that also called on the USDA's inspector general to investigate.

One area of abuse, the ASA alleged, is salaries. The USB is not allowed to spend more than 1 percent of the money they collect on salaries, but the Board found a way around that restriction.

"There are concerns that the USB has evaded this restriction by placing USB office staff members on the books of contractors, even though they have been physically located in the USB office and have served under the direct day-to-day supervision of the USB CEO and USB executive director," the ASA said.

The USB, in response to the ASA, called the allegations "categorically untrue" and said it would be willing to be subjected to an audit.

"If the US Department of Agriculture deems it necessary, USB welcomes a USDA Office of Inspector General audit of any and all of its operations, contractor operations and projects," the USB said.

The OIG is independent from USDA decision making and it is up to the inspector general whether or not an audit is performed, USDA spokesman Keith Williams said Wednesday.

Paul Feeney, spokesman for USDA's OIG, said the agency has received the audit request from the ASA and "OIG officials will assess the request and respond to the organization."

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