Agriculture Watchdog Investigating Secretary’s Plan to Move Offices Out of D.C.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks before Trump at an agriculture convention in late October. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks before Trump at an agriculture convention in late October. Andrew Harnik/AP

In another twist in the saga of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s controversial plan to relocate two key research agencies outside of Washington, D.C., the inspector general for the Agriculture Department is opening a probe of the legal basis for the decision to move what would likely be 700 employees.

The IG decision was announced on Thursday by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip, and another Washington-area lawmaker, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

The IG’s review of the plan to relocate, by the end of 2019, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will “determine USDA’s legal and budgetary authority to execute” the moves, which also include a plan to restore the research service to its previous status as part of the Office of the Chief Economist, in the secretary’s office.

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Investigators will also “determine USDA’s adherence to any established procedures relating to agency realignment and relocation, and procedures associated with cost benefit analyses (including factors such as staff recruitment and retention, access to agency services, and cost efficiencies),” the announcement said.

The Trump “administration’s motivations for the proposed relocations appear suspicious because of the absence of an adequate explanation for the proposed relocation or where to move the agencies,” Hoyer and Norton said in a statement. “In any case, Congress has an obligation to ensure an open and transparent process in accordance with federal laws and regulations. We are also concerned about the harm this proposal would cause to the USDA’s mission and its impact on over 700 federal employees.”

 The IG did not respond to Government Executive requests for confirmation.

But a USDA spokesman via email reiterated the department’s justification. “The planned move of ERS and NIFA has generated great enthusiasm around the country, as 136 parties in 35 states have formally expressed interest in hosting the agencies,” the statement said. “The move will place important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C. area. Additionally, taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. Finally, the plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”

Separately on Thursday, Perdue became the subject of complaints by a nonprofit ethics group for an alleged violation of the Hatch Act limiting partisan political activity in the federal workplace. The secretary last week had traveled to Illinois and appeared at a town meeting for Republican Rep. Mike Bost, at which “he appeared to endorse” the incumbent, said a complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel.

 “It’s good to have [Bost] in [the House of Representatives] fighting for your interests,” Perdue was quoted as saying during a discussion of agriculture and trade policy.

The Project on Government Oversight argued that this was a “likely violation” of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from making partisan endorsements at official events.

“Sonny Perdue is the secretary of Agriculture, so naturally he meets with members of Congress in Washington, D.C., and in their home districts,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “In Illinois, the secretary participated in town hall-style meetings with the members of Congress and agriculture leaders at the invitation of the congressmen—both members of the House Agriculture Committee—as part of his official duties as secretary of Agriculture. The trip was similar to many others he has taken, as he has visited 46 states since taking office in April 2017, often appearing at town halls or other public meetings with members of Congress or other elected officials. The Illinois trip originally had been set for August, but was rescheduled when the secretary was asked by President Trump to survey the California wildfires instead. The trip was paid for by USDA.”

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