Auditors: Government sent billions to dead farmers

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Agriculture Department sent $1.1 billion in farm payments to more than 170,000 dead people over a seven-year period, congressional investigators say.

The findings by the Government Accountability Office were released Monday as the House prepared to debate farm legislation this week that would govern subsidies and the department’s programs for the next five years. GAO auditors reviewed payments from 1999 through 2005 in the report,

“It’s unconscionable that the Department of Agriculture would think that a dead person was actively engaged in the business of farming,” said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

The auditors said they found that the department has not been conducting the necessary checks to ensure that subsidy payments are proper.

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“USDA has made farm payments to estates more than two years after recipients died, without determining, as its regulations require, whether the estates were kept open to receive these payments,” their report said.

Of the payments to estates or businesses, 40 percent went to those who had been dead more than three years, and 19 percent went to those who had been dead for seven or more years.

John Johnson, a deputy administrator for the Farm Service Agency, said there is no indication that the payments were improper, since rules allow estates to continue receiving money after a two-year grace period.

The department is hoping to rely less on self-reporting and is working with the Social Security Administration to boost its record keeping, he said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the report bolsters the argument there should be lower ceilings and stricter limits on farm subsidies.

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