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Where’s the accountability from the USDA?
A month ago this space outlined the ongoing Australian probe of AWB, that nation’s single-desk wheat exporter, and the nearly $215 million in kickbacks and bribes it paid to Iraqi officials to keep Aussie wheat flowing into Iraq between 1999 and the U.S.-led takeover in spring 2003.

The column also noted that U.S. wheat growers had asked USDA Secretary Mike Johanns to cut off (officially, “debar”) AWB’s American affiliate, AWB USA, from USDA credit programs since the investigation had revealed clear evidence - memos, sales documents, bank statements - that AWB management was up to its eyeballs in Iraqi corruption and graft.

Well, the probe continues as does the wait by U.S. growers for Johanns to boot AWB USA from the USDA credit trough.

On the Australian front, mounting evidence has established hard links between AWB’s Iraq game and Prime Minister John Howard’s government. It is now nearly indisputable that top Australian officials were not only aware of AWB’s kickbacks in Iraq, they endorsed them.

For its part, AWB has seen enough. On Feb. 9, it announced the resignation of Andrew Lindberg, the monopoly exporter’s managing director.

Lindberg had to go. In several days of testimony early in the investigation, he sounded like a bumbling idiot while dodging tough, direct questions. The best reply he could make to more than 40 of them was a weak “I don’t know.”

In one “particularly heated exchange,” noted the Aussie press, frustrated investigators finally just “asked Mr. Lindberg if he was ‘a complete fool’ - to which Mr. Lindberg said he was not.”

OK, not a complete fool, but now a gainfully unemployed one.

The U.S. side of the crooked mess remains in limbo. Calls by wheat growers and several U.S. senators to debar AWB USA from USDA credit programs were conditionally dismissed by Secretary Johanns Feb. 10 in a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA.

“If confirmed,” Johanns wrote Harkin, “the (AWB bribery) allegations... could certainly affect AWB USA’s participation in USDA export programs.”

Until then, however, Johanns politely suggested that Harkin and his fellow senators just buzz off.

What the Johanns’ letter did not note - and what several Washington insiders already know - is that from Fiscal Year 2002 through FY 2004, AWB USA received about $170 million of USDA supplier credit to purchase and resell nearly $260 million of U.S. wheat, soybeans and corn to U.S. customers overseas.

According to those insiders, AWB USA’s bite of that American apple amounted to about 10 percent of all supplier credit provided under the USDA export program for those years. Since then, according to Johanns, AWB USA “has not participated in USDA export credit guarantee programs.”

Knowledgeable trade watchers in the U.S. and Australia suggest that Johanns is now playing the Lindberg role of knave. They want to know exactly what AWB USA did with the cash and where the grain AWB USA bought with it went.

The implication, given AWB’s now-firmly established, loose business practices, is that AWB USA used American export credit programs to sell American grain to nations where U.S. firms were barred because of known corruption. If so, AWB USA and its owner, AWB, broke U.S. anti-corruption laws.

Moreover, rumors continue to circulate that AWB received $600,000 from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority in post-Saddam Baghdad to cover some of the bribes it paid the former dictator’s cronies for wheat contracts still in force at the time.

Stir into that mix the meltdown U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-MN, experienced in late January when news from Australia confirmed he had been bamboozled in October 2004 by Michael Thawley, then the Australian ambassador to the U.S, when Thawley assured him there was no truth to the rumors AWB paid bribes to Hussein.

On Jan. 31, the scorned Coleman fired off incendiary letters to Johanns, Dennis Richardson, the current Australian ambassador to the U.S., and Thawley over what he called the “avalanche of evidence” now highlighting AWB kickbacks and USDA’s failure to respond.

Given the avalanche already, why doesn’t Johanns debar AWB USA from USDA credit? Senators and farmers need to continue asking.

This farm news was published in the March 1, 2006 issue of Farm World.