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USDA Contractor Disputes Charge of Political Favoritism

By Ed O'Keefe

The man singled out by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during Wednesday’s White House press briefing as the face of wasteful government spending and political favoritism today defended his credentials and disputed the secretary's suggestion that he was awarded a USDA contract because of ties to the Bush administration.

Stanley Johnson, board chairman of the University of Nevada, Reno’s National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, said during an interview that he first learned that his contract would be terminated on Feb. 5, and expressed surprise that Vilsack mentioned it during an appearance at the White House yesterday with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano where the two announced millions of dollars in savings at their departments.

The agriculture secretary noted the cancellation of "a $400,000 consulting contract which career employees felt was inappropriate," and later told reporters "it involves an individual by the name of Stan Johnson who had a close connection with the previous administration."

"I’m an apolitical person, as you have to be in this position," Johnson said, and cited his decades-long career as an agricultural economist as the main reason he earned a six-figure contract with USDA’s Research, Education and Economics (REE) office. A leading thinker on agricultural economics, Johnson previously taught at Iowa State University and has published several books and articles on the topic. He retired from the University of Nevada Reno in 2006 and now works part-time as the chairman of its D.C.-based food and agriculture policy center.

Johnson said the think tank worked with REE "to develop a strategic plan for energy and to help them with its implementation." The contract began about two years ago and was renewed on Oct. 1, 2008, he said.

During the press briefing, Vilsack said he canceled the contract partly because "it was rather startling to see that a substantial amount of money had already been spent on foreign travel which, under the circumstances, we did not think was appropriate." The foreign travel included a visit to Ukraine last fall to make a presentation on REE's strategic plan to European agricultural policy experts, Johnson said.

His center still has two other contracts with USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service: one to send American farmers and specialists to Europe to talk about biotechnology crops, and another to host Chinese Borlaug Fellows visiting the U.S. to learn about American biotechnology systems.

Vilsack ordered a department-wide review of ways to save or reinvest funds upon taking office in January and the review continues, according to spokeswoman Chris Mather. "There’s a number of things that folks here have realized that will increase our efficiency here and stretch taxpayer dollars," she said, but could not say what other programs might get the axe.

Whether he likes it or not, Johnson has emerged as a face of the Obama administration's efforts to cut back on government contracting, but said the president's plans may prove far-fetched.

"Any organization uses contractors and its own personnel," to achieve its goals, he said. "This strategic plan was something new in USDA, and it was done with a bunch of agencies. We had justification for it and I plan to talk to Secretary Vilsack about it."

"I think we did good work for the USDA. If he wants to take the USDA in a different direction, that’s fine with me. That’s life, that’s the hand you’re dealt."

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 5, 2009; 5:10 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments  
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Loyal Bushies always profess surprise when the spigot is turned off. Another common tactic is to 'pull a Blackwater'- change the company's name and nominal leader while leaving everything just like it was. Watch for more of this in coming weeks and months.

Posted by: hairguy01 | March 5, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Knee-jerk and reactionary. Instead of limiting comments to those germane, the Secretary had to go political. Then the kool-aid drinkers had to chime in with their two-cents worth. More unprofessional actions by political hacks. Keep on trucking, we will see the country tun into the Obama-nation you all want, We the People will stand up next election.

Posted by: GunnyLRP | March 5, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Favoritism is favoritism. Nobody is blind. When the Republicans were in charge the US Government was run like the Kremlin.
Those days are over. I wouldn't be surprised if Texas decided to become their own country for the Republicans. We already know what their flag will be.

Posted by: blakesouthwood | March 5, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: blakesouthwood
"Favoritism is favoritism. Nobody is blind. When the Republicans were in charge the US Government was run like the Kremlin.
Those days are over. I wouldn't be surprised if Texas decided to become their own country for the Republicans. We already know what their flag will be."

| March 5, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

I'd be curious to know, what would that flag look like? Oil rigs with $$ rising from the smoke plume?

Posted by: Just_An_Observer | March 9, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

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