Talk about baptism by fire. Nebraska soybean farmer Chuck Myers was elected chairman of the United Soybean Board (USB) Wednesday afternoon amid a firestorm of controversy and allegations that USB is not being a good steward of soybean checkoff dollars. Myers spent his first press conference as chairman Thursday morning defending the 68-member USB board during the group's meeting in St. Louis.
Myers maintains that USB has acted responsibly and within the mandates put forth by USDA. He claims the American Soybean Association (ASA), which filed the formal complaint with the Secretary of Agriculture on Wednesday morning, has not provided any detail or reason for USB to respond, and that the group is meddling where it doesn't need to be. In what is surely a tension-filled atmosphere, the two groups are meeting at the same St. Louis hotel.
"The specific allegations made are anonymous and without apparent or visible substantiation,” Myers said in a press conference Thursday morning. "USB will not make any attempt to respond to each and every anonymous allegation. That would create unfair and unfounded speculation without any basis in fact. It is not ASA's responsibility to ensure the checkoff program runs properly. It's USDA's responsibility.”
Myers notes that all communications from USB to farmers must be approved by USDA and that USDA maintains oversight of the checkoff program. That, he says, is enough to satisfy him that the group is operating within the law.
Estimated soybean checkoff collections for 2008 are expected to top $140 million, from the ½ of 1% of the net market soybean price that is collected at the first point of sale. Half of the amount collected remains within the state with a Qualified State Soybean Board. The other half is forwarded to the United Soybean Board.
ASA Wants Answers
ASA president John Hoffman says his group is only trying to ensure that soybean checkoff dollars are being spent wisely and within the requirements of the USDA-mandated checkoff act and order.
In a unanimous vote, the 41 members present from ASA's 45-member board of directors called on USDA Secretary Ed Schafer to order the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the USB and the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC), citing "allegations of illegal activities and ethical violations that have surfaced.” USSEC is a joint venture between USB and ASA, with industry representation that promotes U.S. soybeans and soy products to overseas markets.
"We are meeting with Secretary Schafer regarding this matter at the end of this week,” Hoffman says. Hoffman, along with ASA vice president Johnny Dodson of Tennessee and chairman Rick Ostlie of North Dakota, will meet Friday with Secretary Schafer to formally explain their complaints against the two groups.
Hoffman refused to provide specific details on any of the complaints, but he says USB has mismanaged funds and that the USB and USSEC boards have acted illegally in the firings of USSEC employees who should have been protected under federal whistle-blower laws.
"Whistle-blowers came forth to the board of directors alleging no-bid contracts and people were fired,” Hoffman says. "These are long-term employees, and there was no investigation into why they were fired.
"Serious allegations have come forth. Investigations must follow when whistle-blowers are fired. There are allegations of physical assaults, allegations by USEC employees that involve use of a knife. I can't go into the details until the Office of the Inspector General rules on it. Specific information on the allegations is not proper. ASA is trying to do what it's supposed to do and be responsible to the U.S. soybean farmer.”
Terry Ecker, a Missouri farmer and USB representative to the USSEC board of directors, says the issues regarding personnel were investigated and the USSEC board decided as a group to move forward.