PPT Asks: Does USDA Have Something to Hide?

Watchdog forced to appeal agency’s repeated failure to produce records

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced another chapter in its continuing saga of attempting to obtain waiver documents for high-ranking officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). After the agency once again failed to produce records that are referenced in other publicly available documents, PPT filed an appeal of USDA’s closure of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
 
As PPT revealed in a September press release, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack was granted a waiver that, according to a media report, “allows him to oversee” a program through which he collects payments from USDA. Secretary Vilsack’s Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance, available on the Office of Government Ethics website, also exposes the existence of this waiver.
 
A second search by USDA in response to a PPT FOIA request, which agency officials agreed to expedite, produced 74 pages of responsive documents. Interestingly enough, none of them pertained to Secretary Vilsack’s waiver. As PPT describes in the appeal,

It appears that one of two things is necessarily true: either Secretary Vilsack filed an inaccurate Certification of Ethics Agreement, or the Department failed to find and produce all relevant documents. Of the two, we believe that the latter is more likely. It strains credulity that an adequate search would miss an ethics waiver for the highest ranking official in the Department that has been reported elsewhere.

In addition, PPT believes USDA improperly used exemptions to redact an excessive amount of content from the records it did provide.

“It’s a couple weeks early for Groundhog Day but we seem to be stuck in a similar loop as Bill Murray in the movie,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, Michael Chamberlain. “The American public trusts that agencies promptly, completely, and with the utmost transparency provide records in response to FOIA requests. While the Biden Administration talks a good game about transparency, our experience with many agencies has fallen far short of their lofty pronouncements.”

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