The USDA's inspector general has been busy lately. When her auditors recently took close looks at two of the department's programs they found hundreds of millions of dollars in public money wasted as people took advantage of loopholes large enough to drive a combine through.
Examples of lax administration can be found in a crop insurance program and a program aimed at bringing high-speed Internet to rural areas.
An inspector general's audit of the Risk Management Agency's Group Risk Protection and the Group Risk Income Protection programs shows ample evidence of administrators handing out money to people who appear to be gaming a poorly designed system.
The programs are supposed to help corn farmers in years when rainfall severely reduces yields. Administrators are supposed to take historical irrigated and non-irrigated yields for the county and determine a payment based on the farmer's actual yield.
However, in some counties the National Agricultural Statistics Service doesn't track separate data for irrigated and non-irrigated operations. Instead, it averages the yields.
This means farmers who don't irrigate are overpaid in a dry year and the millions of dollars that are supposed to go toward protecting farmers' incomes are instead lining the pockets of those who don't need or deserve help.
Still worse, some outside investors have figured out ways to game this poorly designed system. In one county alone, they planted 3,400 acres of marginal land to corn just to get an $8 million insurance payment.
Another USDA program aimed at providing high-speed Internet service to rural areas has turned into an unguided missile, spraying money across the countryside. The USDA Rural Utilities Service has spent $1.35 billion on Internet service since 2001 and received $2.5 billion last winter to continue the uncontrolled largesse.
A 2005 audit showed that, instead of going to rural areas, the money went to communities near metropolitan areas including Las Vegas and Chicago, sometimes even funding services in competitive environments.
In fact, the Office of Inspector General found 77 percent of the communities that benefited from the rural broadband loans already had access to the technology, and 27 percent already had three or more Internet providers. Why should places near Las Vegas and Chicago get federal help when some rural areas still go without?
In other words, that money was just thrown away. It's as though the Rural Utilities Service lost track of the whole point of the program.
Unsurprisingly, the USDA functionaries have disputed the auditors' findings. They say everything is hunky-dory and the inspector general and her people are behind the times.
That may well be the case, but it's hard to believe auditors would pick on these programs for sport. It's equally hard to believe those program administrators would continue to splash hundreds of millions of dollars around the countryside with no apparent clue that it wasn't accomplishing anything.
And it is hard to blame those who take advantage of loopholes in the USDA programs. It's like blaming the cow for leaving the barn after the USDA left the barn door open.
There were at least two opportunities to avert these problems.
First, when the regulations were written, obvious loopholes could have been easily closed.
Second, when administrators saw problems, they could have flagged their supervisors and gotten the problems fixed, either at the USDA level or the congressional level.
In these two cases, neither happened, and as a result taxpayers are stuck with the bill.
Unsigned editorials are the opinion of the East Oregonian editorial board, comprised of Associate Publisher Kathryn Brown, General Manager Wendy DalPez and Managing Editor Skip Nichols. Other columns, letters and cartoons on this page express the opinions of the authors and not necessarily that of the East Oregonian.