Senior USDA Official Appears to Share Financially Advantageous Insights with Previous Employer

Senior USDA Official Appears to Share Financially Advantageous Insights with Previous Employer

  • March 22, 2024
Documents reveal extensive communications with a former employer as well as team assisting with editing org’s report

Today, government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over conduct by the current USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services that appears to violate ethics rules. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal Ms. Stacy Dean and her former employer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), were engaged in communications and actions that may have financially benefited CBPP – a seemingly clear and direct violation of her signed ethics agreement.

Prior to her appointment to the Biden Administration in 2021, Ms. Dean served as the vice president for food assistance policy at CBPP, a research and policy institute. The CBPP is known for its advocacy work aimed at influencing food assistance policies at both the federal and state levels, notably focusing on promoting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

According to FOIA documents, under Ms. Dean’s supervision, USDA provided research and drafting work for CBPP. In the summer of 2021, CBPP senior analyst Zoe Neuberger emailed Ms. Dean and her staff seeking comments on a draft CBPP report, explaining:

[A]s I’ve mentioned to some of you, we’ve been working on a report on WIC [Women, Infants and Children Program] participation during the pandemic. A near-final version is attached and we’d very much appreciate it if you or your staff could review it to make sure we’re presenting your data accurately. If you will be able to get us feedback by the end of the day on Thursday July 1, we’d be able to address it before our planned publication date of Tuesday July 6. But if you need more time to review it, please just let me know. Feel free to share it with others within FNS for review, but please do not share it more widely until we publish it.

Ms. Dean’s FNS team replied to all:

Dear Zoe, Thank you for sharing this informative and well written report. We offer a few minor comments based on our review and related research we have conducted. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you want to discuss any of these comments.

As Deputy Under Secretary for FNS, Ms. Dean had direct oversight of the named program and was in a position to provide her former employer with a wealth of inside information about the program and its operations. All of the work improving the report conducted within Ms. Dean’s purview redounded to the direct financial benefit of CBPP – which would be a violation of a provision of her signed ethics agreement stating:

I am permitted to discuss general policy matters with CBPP unless they have a financial interest, as opposed to an academic or ideological interest, in the matter to be discussed.

Many other examples of partiality in Ms. Dean’s emails include: closed meeting invitations, requests for guidance in her work at USDA, multiple occasions where Ms. Dean added other USDA employees to meetings and email threads with CBPP,  and several instances where contact information was exchanged between CBPP staff and Ms. Dean. It is difficult to view these records as pointing to anything less than a blatant abuse of Ms. Dean’s position.

“The public deserves to be assured that political appointees are performing their duties in an ethical, impartial manner without favoritism toward their former employers.” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust said. “In this instance, it appears Ms. Dean had her department essentially fact-check a report for an outside party, which, not coincidentally, was her former employer. That service – and the assumedly improved report – represent a financial benefit to CBPP. It’s not hard to imagine the level of outrage that would ensue if, in a different administration, a former employee of the Heritage Foundation had assisted that group in preparing a report on the benefits of fossil fuels, for instance. This is precisely the type of double-standard that has contributed so much to the precipitous loss of trust in government.”

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