In a letter to the Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called for a follow-up investigation into USDA'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, 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 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, according to a statement from Harkin's office.
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 says. "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 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.