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Agriculture Department's soybean investigation nearing end

Two-year investigation into possible misspending in the soybean research program nears conclusion.

The Agriculture Department inspector general is nearing completion of a two-year investigation of the soybean research and promotion program that has split the industry and involves charges of a knife incident, sexual harassment and misspending, a spokesman for the inspector general said this week.

"We anticipate completing our review and issuing our findings by early May," spokesman Paul Feeney said in an e-mail.

The origins of the investigation lie in conflicts between the American Soybean Association, a producers' group that lobbies on domestic policy, and the United Soybean Board, a group that collects and spends money that farmers have voted to pay for research and promotion. There have long been tensions between the association, which has to work to convince farmers to join and pay dues for lobbying operations, and the board, which gets its 0.5 percent of the price of each bushel sold through a check-off program and gets additional money from USDA.

The American Soybean Association campaigned to set up the check-off and has been the group through which the USDA money flowed, but in the fall of 2008, the U.S. Soybean Export Council, a joint venture of the two soybean groups to promote foreign sales, voted to remove the association as the cooperator group. In reaction, the association petitioned then-Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to request that the inspector general investigate.

The petition noted that farmers had paid $1.3 billion in check-off assessments over 17 years and included allegations of misspending. There were also allegations that an export council official pulled a knife on a soybean association official in Branson, Mo., when the soybean groups held an executive retreat there and that an export council official had an improper sexual relationship that disrupted management of the Japan foreign office and jeopardized U.S. soy exports to that market.

Schafer signed off on the investigation because USDA oversees the check-off program and the Agriculture secretary appoints members of the United Soybean Board.