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Report: Agriculture Botched Investigations

January 18, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department has pretended to investigate anti-competitive behavior among stockyards and meat companies since 1999 but in hundreds of cases didn’t actually file complaints, a department audit found.

Employees created the appearance of a high rate of enforcement by logging routine letters and reviews of public data as investigations, according to a report Wednesday by the agency’s inspector general.

``Competition and complex investigations were not being performed, and timely action was not being taken,″ the inspector general found.

In fact, one regional office was reprimanded last year because it didn’t count routine correspondence as an investigation. The reprimand came from deputy administrator JoAnn Waterfield, who quit abruptly last month without giving a reason.

Department officials acknowledged the problems but said they’re being fixed.

``Of course I was bothered,″ said James E. Link, the new administrator of the Grain Inspection, Stockyards and Packers Administration. ``When I came here, I didn’t know the agency had those internal problems. You can’t fix a problem till you know you have it.″

The report did not provide a reason for the failure to perform investigations, but Link said he didn’t think employees deliberately tried to inflate their numbers.

``I think there was a lot of misunderstanding between headquarters and field offices as to what really constituted investigations,″ he said.

While anti-competitive complaints have not been initiated since 1999, officials said there have been complaints involving financial and trade practices.

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