Investigative reporters take closer look at US agriculture

As President Carter's watchdog for the US Department of Agriculture, Inspector General Tom McBride scored impressive victories in his one-year drive to skim fraud and waste from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

His investigations into the USDA's 300 programs -- worth $40 billion annually -- resulted in more than 800 indictments.

Yet despite the vast amount of USDA spending and exposed fraud, this self-styled "whistled plower" says that Congress, the public, and the press don't seem to care.

That apathy could be changing, however, as more attention is focused on the nation's largest industry -- agriculture. For example, a recent University of Missouri conference examining investigative reporting on agriculture drew more than 100 reporters. Many speakers at the conference said agricultural fraud was a fertile field for journalists, and they urged them to start digging.

Although Mr. McBride now has been appointed to investigate the Labor Department, he is still interested in USDA problems. And they are many, he said. McBride, who spoke at the conference, said in one case that former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland agreed with him that "the disaster program [which pays farmers for crop losses] was a disaster."

McBride said he found the program was being used "by massive agribusiness operations for financing expansion" at government expense with individual payments running as high as $17 million. His reports and recommendations led nowhere, however, until a CBS television "60 Minutes" segment focused national attention on the abuse. Congress responded to the TV exposure, McBride said, by holding hearings and then placing a limit on disaster payments.

Running through USDA programs like a New Orleans pianist down a keyboard, McBride listed areas in which, he said, "it's not a question of how much fraud there is, but how many resources you have to find it."

McBride called on journalists to do the hard digging required for exposing abuses. He urged journalists to learn more about the help available from government officials who share the media's objective of making government work better. although he has unlimited access to departmental files as inspector general, McBride explained he also works closely with the press to root out fraud and correct abuses.

The plea for more government-media cooperation contrasted with journalists' complaints that they not only face inevitable deadline pressures but also find in-depth reporting obstructed by hostile government and business officials.

John Ullman, a working reporter and executive director of the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) organization based at the University of Missouri, understands such complaints. He believes that part of any journalist's problem is having to work with officials who may simply be ignorant , may evade questions, or may actually lie.

But Mr. Ullman also insists that journalists should be doing far more than just reporting news about the latest tragedy. He told of one case in which farmers lost heavily in a grain elevator bankruptcy -- which might have been avoided if investigative reporters had dug into court records to discover the elevator operator's past record of bankruptcy in neighbouring counties.

James Risser, the Des Moines Register's Washington bureau chief, was proof of what a persistent reporter can accomplish. His 1975 series of articles exposing glaring frauds in Gulf Coast grain export practices led both to a Pulitzer Prize and to congressional legislation curbing the abuses. Mr. Risser called for in-depth reporting which "points a finger and draws conclusions and makes some people mad." He said journalists need to realize that "the press plays an important role in government" which can either be helpful or else "can sow disorder and confusion."

Environmental reporters John Wylie from the Kansas City Star and Jim Detjen from the Louisville Courier-Journal gave examples of how important investigative work can be. Their articles have spotlighted chemical contamination problems in many areas. Silos containing a PCB sealer were discovered affeting humans via milk from cows fed from those silos. Uncontrolled pesticide spraying by utility companies and railroads along power lines and railroad tracks was linked with contaminated water supplies.

Several reporters warned that the digging process may be hampered by the Reagan administration relaxing federal regulations and limiting access to government files. Legal experts warned that journalists face new chanllenges and should always be prepared to defend their words and actions in court.

But all the hard work and risks can yield impressive returns. A number of reporters told of their stories leading to criminal convictions. Don Muhm said reporters need to investigate even if they don't know of any problems, on the assumption that enough digging will turn up something. This was the case with him when "one time I walked into an office and a clerk said, 'I might have known you'd show up at a time like this."

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