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Watchdog: World-hopping Agriculture Department employees frequent China

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Map of USDA foreign conference locations between 2008 and mid-2011. Data from USDA; research by Mark Flatten; interactive by Jennifer Peebles/Examiner.

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Beijing, China, is a more frequent official conference destination for employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture than Boise, Idaho.

Rome, Italy, tops Richmond, Va., and Brisbane, Australia, outpaces Bozeman, Montana.

The use of the taxpayer dollars and the globetrotting appears to be a bit excessive. - Leslie Paige, Citizens Against Government Waste

Agriculture Department employees are such frequent world travelers that they attended at least 106 conferences in foreign countries in the four-year period that ended September 2011, according to the most recent data on conference spending the agency is required to post online. (See conference data in the interactive map above this story, and see the USDA's publicly disclosed foreign conference data in the spreadsheet below.)

All that international jet-setting cost taxpayers about $2.5 million, a relatively small chunk of the nearly $56 million the USDA spent on conferences in those same four years.

The extensive international travels of a department with a primarily domestic mission shows there is no pressure on agencies to limit unneeded conference spending, said Leslie Paige of the independent watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste.

"The use of the taxpayer dollars and the globetrotting appears to be a bit excessive," Paige said. "Obviously the taxpayer's dime is viewed as a perk, that their job now has to include some perks to do a lot of other things besides just take care of agriculture issues here in this country. How do you deal with what's going on in our country for the agriculture industry by going to Beijing?"

Usually, USDA sends only a few people to international conferences, records show. So, while the total cost of each trip seems small, the per-person expenses frequently exceed $10,000.

The most frequent foreign destination for USDA conference-goers is Beijing. The agency sent people to 10 conferences there over four years at a cost of $186,000, according to its disclosure database.

The most expensive was a two-day event in July 2009 that cost $41,842, including travel expenses. The USDA reports 280 employees attended.

The previous September, the agency had a dozen people from three different offices at three different conferences in the Chinese capital dealing with agricultural trade, food safety, and eggs and poultry.

In August 2009, 18 USDA representatives from two different offices were back in Beijing for overlapping events dealing with agricultural economics and soybeans.

Other popular foreign cities for the USDA are Brisbane, Australia; Istanbul, Turkey; and Rome, Italy. No North American city is in the top five, though Canada is one of the most visited countries for USDA officials attending overseas conferences, right behind China and Australia.

Agency officials did not respond to a detailed list of questions about conference costs from The Washington Examiner.

Spokesman Justin DeJong did issue a generic statement saying the USDA has important business overseas.

The Foreign Agricultural Service, which accounts for about a third of the international trips, "works to improve foreign market access for U.S. products," DeJong said.

Other departments within USDA collaborate on research or participate in developing international standards for things like food safety.

The most expensive foreign conference for the USDA was a July 2008 gathering of insect experts put on by the International Congress of Entomology in Durban, South Africa. The agency sent more than two dozen employees from multiple divisions at a cost of $154,000.

Attendees of the conference, held at the International Convention Centre Durban, were treated to a beach party and reception in addition to the scientific presentations. Breakdowns of individual costs were not available.

Many of the conferences are recurring events. Every year since 2009, for example, the USDA has sent between two and five people to BioFach, an annual trade fair of organic agricultural products, in Nuremberg, Germany.

In February 2011, the agency sent one employee from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to a two-week International Plant Protection Convention workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, at a cost of $17,688.

A month later, USDA spent $12,530 to send a worker from the same office on a nine-day jaunt for a gathering on the same topic in Rome, Italy.

The agency's conference database does not say whether it was the same person, nor does it describe what was accomplished at the first meeting that could not have been done at the second.

Mark Flatten is a member of the Washington Examiner special reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com. Data editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report. She can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

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