The fallout continues over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to realign the Economic Research Service under the Office of the Chief Economist and relocate ERS and National Institute of Food and Agriculture offices from D.C. to Kansas City.

This time the fallout is from within USDA itself.

A report from USDA’s Office of Inspector General stated the administration has not followed proper procedure as it proceeds with the move.

The report determined USDA does have legal authority to carry out the relocation, but proper procedure was not followed to proceed with the move in terms of having authority to use appropriated funds to move the offices.

The review was launched in November after requests from Democratic lawmakers concerned USDA didn’t adequately explain why the relocation was taking place.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the move will bring USDA research closer to farming communities, cut costs and improve recruitment and retention of staff.

“The Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1953 provides the department with legal authority to realign ERS under OCE and relocate ERS and NIFA offices. However, while the general provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (Omnibus Act) provides certain budgetary authorities to the department, there are established limitations on such authorities to realign or relocate offices. Further, the department has not obtained congressional approval, as required by Sect. 717(a) of the Omnibus Act and has not complied with the reporting deadline requirements in Sect. 753 of the Omnibus Act,” USDA’s OIG stated in its findings.

Some employees already have begun working in temporary office space in the Kansas City area until USDA secures a permanent, long-term lease. All positions that are being relocated will be transferred by Sept. 30.

The OIG’s report could still help bolster the case of those opposed to the move. The fiscal 2018 omnibus requires USDA to notify the House and Senate appropriations committees at least 30 days before using funds to relocate an office or its employees. The USDA on Aug. 9, 2018, informed Congress of Perdue’s relocation proposal.

On Oct. 22, 2018, USDA allocated about $169,655 in ERS funds and $169,655 of $6 million in appropriations provided to NIFA for relocation expenses to hire Ernst & Young to review bids from cities vying to host the agencies, according to the report.

Investigators also said that USDA blew past a 60-day deadline set by Congress to submit a report on how the department intends to use the $6 million in appropriations given to NIFA that were earmarked for relocation expenses. The omnibus was enacted on March 23, 2018, and USDA didn’t notify the committees until August — 139 days later.

As a result, the report concludes that USDA may have also violated the Antideficiency Act, “which prohibits government employees from involving the federal government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made.”

A USDA spokesperson said in a statement that the OIG’s conclusion that the department “was out of step with budgetary requirements disregards the authority given to the Executive Branch by the U.S. Constitution.

“Since the Inspector General affirms the department has the legal authority and we do not agree with the unconstitutional budgetary provision, this case is closed. This is opinion based on policy decisions that have no basis in fact.”

But the OIG responded to USDA’s argument that those committee approval provisions have been included in appropriations laws since 2015 and the department has previously considered them binding.

The OIG said USDA’s “current and prior positions” on the committee approval provisions “are not consistent” and recommended that the department needs to explain in writing why officials changed their interpretation.

House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Chair Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, issued the following joint statement in response to the report: “The report from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General is just the latest in a long line of red flags surrounding this relocation.

“We are alarmed that USDA continues to proceed with this move without consulting Congress or — according to the OIG — following the necessary legal requirements.

“Couple that with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s comments over the weekend on relocations as a mechanism for staff reduction, and this whole exercise is a naked and shameless attempt to force dedicated civil servants out of their livelihoods.”

This OIG report is another in a line of concerns about the move to KC.

I wrote in this space last month of the concern that this move would result in losing valuable ERS and NIFA employees who’d rather stay on the East Coast than move their families to the nation’s midsection.

A preliminary survey compiled by union leaders found that as many as four out of five ERS employees could quit instead of relocating to the new headquarters.

USDA aims to move all employees into temporary office space in the Kansas City area by Sept. 30 as department officials work with the General Services Administration to select a permanent building to house ERS and NIFA.

Perdue has said the relocation will bring the agencies closer to the farming communities the agencies serve, cut expenses and improve recruitment and retention efforts.

The department’s cost-benefit analysis projected the move to the Kansas City area will save $20 million per year, for a total savings of $300 million over the course of a 15-year lease.

But an analysis conducted by researchers at the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association disputed the department’s estimate, suggesting relocation could cost as much as $128 million over time.

That group’s analysis said USDA didn’t take into account the value of future research that would be lost after veteran economists leaving the agencies and also argued the department overstated the costs of keeping the agencies in Washington.

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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