Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran focused on questions of USDA program fraud. “There has been a lot of attention focused on the integrity of the (USDA) programs, (and) the honesty and integrity of those who apply for and receive benefits of one kind or another: farm payments, program payments, crop insurance … and food and nutrition assistance programs. … What programs are underway and what are the steps taken by leadership at the department to see they’re producing and recapturing wrongfully – or mistakenly – paid benefits to those who weren’t entitled to them?”

There has been criticism over the years about some Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) programs and eligibility, agreed Michael Scuse, USDA Acting Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. “We take it quite seriously at FSA to make sure program participants are entitled to the money received.

“There are several things we do at FSA. All our producers who receive payments have to fill out a form to give the IRS permission to view tax returns to make sure they’re within the adjusted gross income levels for participation in FSA programs.”

Another form producers must sign – CCC 902E – verifies “they’re ‘actively engaged’ in agriculture and production,” continued Scuse. “That form is reviewed by the county committee and if there are discrepancies it is elevated to the state and federal level.

Scuse also pointed to the CIMS (Comprehensive Information Management System) project. “We’ve been doing data-mining to make sure the program is being run properly, that ag producers who should be receiving crop insurance payments actually do. In the last 10 years, we’ve been able to have a cost-avoidance of $840 million.

“So, we have put things into place to ensure there are no improper payments. One improper payment is one too many.”

Cochran wasn’t finished.One program was brought to my attention. In farm payment programs, there have been an inordinate number of people paid who have died. There were no records to reflect that at the USDA.

“The information I was given said from 1999 through 2005 the USDA paid $1.1 billion in farm payments in the names of 172,801 deceased individuals. Of this total, 40 percent went to those who’d been dead for three, or more, years. Nineteen percent went to those who’d been dead for seven, or more, years. That’s kind of shocking.”

At this, Scuse said the FSA “has an agreement with the Social Security Administration. Quarterly, we review the deceased individuals to make sure they’re, in fact, entitled to payments. If you sign up to participate in a program and pass away during the course of the year, you – or your estate – are still entitled to that program. But we’re looking to make sure those people are entitled to that payment.”

Thune wanted to know the highest hurdles Rural Development faced in administering the 2008 farm bill programs.

Tonsager was brief: “Probably the sheer volume of new programs. Of course, we see those as opportunities. But we had an enormous number of regulations to get through.”