The federal government can spend more money in 10 minutes than Congress, its watchdog, can track in 10 years. Still, congressional oversight — as late and limited as it often is — remains a vital element of government.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis proved just how vital in two reports released in October: Tens of millions in pandemic spending were wasted on programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first report, titled “Farmers to Families?” followed the money of the ill-conceived, poorly-run Farmers to Families Food Box program pushed in 2020 by the White House and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Sold as a way to get fresh food to pandemic-hit American families, it also threw millions of taxpayer dollars at wildly unqualified vendors.
The second report, titled a “Memorandum,” describes an even bigger scandal. Documents given to the subcommittee by the five principle meatpackers in the United States — JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef — show “at least 59,000 meatpacking workers were infected with the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic … almost triple the 22,700 infections … previously estimated.”
Also, “at least 269 meatpacking workers lost their lives to the coronavirus between March 1, 2020, and February 1, 2021 — over three times higher than what was previously estimated,” noted the independent Food & Environment Reporting Network.
Worse, few of the workers had a choice in the-life-and-death matter. In late April 2020, the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to order slaughterhouse workers back into packing plants where thousands got ill and hundreds died.
On Sept. 14, 2020, however, “emails obtained by ProPublica,” an independent, non-profit newsroom, showed that “just a week before the order was issued, the meat industry’s trade group,” the North American Meat Institute, “drafted an executive order that (carried) striking similarities to the one the president signed.”
So, Big AgBiz used its political muscle to bulldoze aside public health — and public decency — to keep its kill lines and profits flowing at top speeds.
One of the few things more profitable than meatpacking during the pandemic, according to the select subcommittee investigators, was contracting to distribute USDA’s slapped-together Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
For example, according to the subcommittee, “The Trump administration awarded contracts worth $16.5 million to Yegg Inc., a self-described Export Management, Trading and Trade Finance company that had listed its most recent annual sales as $250,000.”
With that kind of institutional blindness, little wonder USDA later “reimbursed Yegg for more than $2.85 million worth of milk and dairy boxes purportedly delivered to … a nonprofit operated by the wife of the company’s CEO.”
USDA also oversaw a food box contract “worth $39 million to CR8AD8 LLC, a company focused on wedding planning and event planning without significant food distribution experience.”
Experience? Come on, noted one of its owners, how hard could it be “compared to … his usual work of ‘stuffing tchotchkes into bags.’”
Actually, it paid far better than tchotchke-stuffing: “CRE8AD8 was ultimately paid $31.5 million of this contract,” explained the subcommittee report.
The slickest icing on the USDA cake, however, was the award of a $40 million contract to something called Ben Holtz Consulting Inc. When the USDA application asked the company to list references, the applicant — presumably Mr. Ben Holtz himself — replied: “I don’t have any,” noted the investigators.
The company’s honesty didn’t pay; USDA canceled the contract “before any payments were made,” maybe, investigators suggest, because its proposal “pitched an unusually broad range for delivery capacity: between 5,000 and 200,000 16-18 pound boxes of produce per week.”
In releasing the “Farmers to Families” report Oct. 13, Subcommittee Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C., noted the program “was marred by a structure that prioritized industry over families … cutting corners over competence and … politics over the public good.”
That’s another truism in Washington: Policy drift usually leads to political grift.