Texan’s Off-The-Record Conversation Sparks Furor In International Agriculture
WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Texan John Baize, a vice president for the American Soybean Association, criticized the United States’ controversial sugar program in an interview with a graduate student, he thought he was speaking off the record.
But after copies of an alleged transcript were leaked on Capitol Hill, Baize found himself out of a job and at the center of an international intrigue that has touched Minnesota’s agriculture commissioner - and apparently angered Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter.
At a yearend news conference Thursday, Yeutter appealed for broad support of liberalized trade policies being advocated in Geneva in ongoing negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Yeutter said he believes there is broad support for the Bush administration’s proposals but noted that ″we have seen some evidence of undercutting here and there by particular groups,″ which he did not identify.
Kelly Shipp, his press secretary, later told The Associated Press that Yeutter referred mostly to Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols, a Democrat, and not specifically to any farm organizations.
Pressed about Nichols, she said only that Nichols was ″the one that’s on his mind.″
In an interview Friday, Nichols said the ″Baize incident″ and Yeutter’s complaints are linked, and he is not Yeutter’s only opponent on GATT issues.
Nichols’ farm policy analyst, Mark Ritchie, is responsible for circulating copies of Baize’s interview with the European student to Minnesota sugar beet growers - who have a stake in protecting the government’s strict quotas on sugar imports. Those comments ended up on Capitol Hill and sparked the furor that led to Baize’s resignation on Nov. 10 from the job he had held since 1979.
As Baize’s comments were circulated anonymously on Capitol Hill, Ritchie also was circulating GATT documents in Congress from the U.S. Trade Representative, which Nichols contended pitted soybean farmers against sugar producers.
Baize believes the student who taped the August interview - which he thought was to be an academic discussion to help her write a thesis on agricultural trade - turned the tape over to an organization in France.
Baize said the French group apparently gave the interview to Ritchie, who acknowledges providing summaries to Minnesota sugar beet growers.
Those growers contacted others in the sugar industry and the transcript was suddenly being ″faxed all over the Hill,″ Baize said.
Marlyn Jorgensen, president of the American Soybean Association, moved to assure Rep. Kika de la Garza, D-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, that the ASA does not oppose the U.S. sugar program.
In a letter dated Oct. 25, Jorgensen told de la Garza, whose district includes Texas’ sugar cane growers, that Baize’s comments had been taken out of context and ″it appears that ASA has been used for purposes that many of us do not know.″
‘I cant’ believe John lost his job over this deal,″ Nichols said. ″John’s said it for years.″
Said Baize: ″I had a frank, academic discussion and I understood and was told it was to be off the record. I resent anyone using an off-the-record interview, taking things out of context, with a malicious intent to injure me. But so be it.″
Baize, a Gatesville, Texas, native, said his sources say the student was told before she left Europe to specifically interview him, and that when she returned, the group asked for only one interview tape out of 25 or 30 - his.
Baize said he may have been singled out because he was the architect of the Soybean Association’s charge that the European Community’s oilseed subsidies were illegal under international trading rules.
A dispute settlement panel of GATT ruled ″the U.S. position was 100 percent correct,″ Baize said.
″The fact that we filed the case and were very aggressive in persuing it here and in Europe, angered a lot of people in the oilseed industry in France and Europe,″ Baize said.
Ritchie, the farm policy analyst, claims Baize knew the interview was on the record and that the student’s report would be published in Europe.
Ritchie, who is on a technical review committee for the student’s thesis, said Baize’s comments put his state’s $370 million sugar beet industry at risk by giving Europe more ammunition to fight the U.S. sugar program in GATT.
Baize, meanwhile, said he has ″other irons in the fire,″ and is not bitter at his former employer.
″I guess I’ve always been a sucker for these students who come in and want to learn something,″ Baize said.