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No Sacred Cows: Phyllis Fong Takes on the Beltway and Mad Cow Disease

Asian Week, News Report, AsianWeek Staff Report, Jul 06, 2005

Newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appears to be headed for a showdown with veteran Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong for ordering new tests for mad cow disease in the nation’s beef supply.

Since the tests Fong ordered have returned positive, several countries have once again stopped buying U.S. beef, provoking uproar in the cattle industry.

Reacting to industry pressure, Johanns now claims Fong requested the tests without his knowledge or approval and added: “It caught me by surprise, to be very honest with you. I believe the secretary should be involved in all decisions of this significance.”

Fong, the senior officer of the Inspector General’s office of the USDA was sworn in on December 2, 2002 after serving as Inspector General for the Small Business Administration. Like Johanns, she is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Inspector General’s office is an independent arm of the department that performs audits and investigations.

When she ordered the re-testing of the latest case, she issued a statement saying she was also probing “the performance of [laboratories] in complying with procedures for conducting tests.” With the cow that was suspected of having the disease, she reported: “Auditors noted an unusual pattern of conflicting test results on one sample.”

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, an outside testing agency, confirmed that a sample from an animal in November 2004 tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Yet Johanns, who took the reins of the Agriculture Department early this year in a Bush cabinet shake-up, insists that Fong has overstepped her bounds. “I was asked by the Senate and the president to operate the department,” Johanns said. “She could recommend; she could strongly urge. But then the question is whether it’s an operational decision.”

He reportedly learned of Fong’s order from his chief of staff after the new testing was already under way. He charges that it’s up for debate whether Fong had the authority to order the new tests, and asserts: “It’s my domain.”

This is not the first time Fong has found herself in the eye of the storm.

After allegations of misconduct arose in the handling of the first cow with mad cow disease, Fong launched a criminal investigation.

“Currently we are investigating allegations surrounding the actual state of the diseased cow before it went to slaughter,” Fong testified last year before the House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations. “So that’s a criminal investigation that’s open, ongoing, active and it’s focused on that issue.”

Fong’s investigation concluded that there was no criminal negligence, but in July she released an audit of the USDA’s testing program and concluded it had serious flaws that could undermine its credibility and lead to questionable estimates of how widespread the disease is in America.

Fong recently re-opened investigations started during the administration of Johanns’ predecessor, Ann Veneman. Veneman began a reform push on testing U.S. beef, but her efforts eventually ran aground amid battles between competing interests, including the beef industry, scientists and consumer activists.

The two behind-the-scenes audits follow complaints by several cow-state senators over policies and procedures in testing for mad cow disease.

Fong said in a statement that “our field work is ongoing” with results expected “late this summer.”

USDA’s Top Cop

As a young girl, Phyllis Fong had a hankering for the law. Those interests began in her childhood, kindled by her father.

“When I was growing up, I remember searching, as all kids do, for a career path that matched my talents,” she said in an article for the USDA. “And my father said to me, at one point in high school, that he really thought law school would be right for me, that I would be a tremendous lawyer. I had never thought about that as an option.”

Fong’s family had emigrated from Hawai‘i to China generations before, in the mid-1800s. Unlike a lot of APA families who insist that the children follow in the family business, Fong recalls, “He was a doctor and yet he did not suggest I go into medical school. I think he was tired of my arguing with him about everything!”

“I had a wonderful experience growing up. They call Hawai‘i a melting pot because of its multi-racial and multi-cultural society. I always felt that everyone there had the opportunity to become anything. It didn’t matter what color, what sex, what race, what ethnic heritage you were, if you were interested in something you could pursue it,” she said.

An unusual route led to her toward the senior job as USDA’s Inspector General. After studying Asian studies and finishing her law degree, she intended to become an international lawyer specializing in trade and immigration.

But when Fong arrived in Washington, D.C., she got a job with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which at the time was studying immigration policy. One thing led to another, and a colleague who was the Inspector General at the U.S. Small Business Administration asked her to become her special assistant

“I realized this was a good opportunity. Who can be against going after fraud and abuse? Who can be against economy and efficiency in government?” Fong has been in the field ever since, and oversees about 600 employees divided almost evenly between investigators and auditors.

Name: Phyllis K. Fong

Salary: $136,900

Position: Inspector General, USDA. She’s responsible for conducting and supervising audits and evaluations, as well as investigations and law enforcement efforts.

Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Family: Married, two daughters, ages 4 and 7

Education: BA degree in Asian Studies, Pomona College; Juris Doctorate, Vanderbilt University School of Law

Past Experience: She was Inspector General of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 1999-2002 after holding several positions with the SBA, including Assistant Inspector General for Management and Legal Counsel and Assistant Inspector General for Management and Policy. In the early 1980s, she had served as assistant general counsel for the Legal Services Corporation and, before that, as an attorney with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Hobbies/Interests: Needlepoint

Priorities: “To instill the message within USDA that OIG’s mission is not just to audit and investigate. Our mission is to work in partnership with the Department to manage programs more effectively and deal with fraud and abuse.”

The Associated Press and USDA contributed to this report.
 

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Oldtimer said:
No Sacred Cows: Phyllis Fong Takes on the Beltway and Mad Cow Disease

Asian Week, News Report, AsianWeek Staff Report, Jul 06, 2005

Newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appears to be headed for a showdown with veteran Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong for ordering new tests for mad cow disease in the nation’s beef supply.

Since the tests Fong ordered have returned positive, several countries have once again stopped buying U.S. beef, provoking uproar in the cattle industry.

Reacting to industry pressure, Johanns now claims Fong requested the tests without his knowledge or approval and added: “It caught me by surprise, to be very honest with you. I believe the secretary should be involved in all decisions of this significance.”

Fong, the senior officer of the Inspector General’s office of the USDA was sworn in on December 2, 2002 after serving as Inspector General for the Small Business Administration. Like Johanns, she is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Inspector General’s office is an independent arm of the department that performs audits and investigations.

When she ordered the re-testing of the latest case, she issued a statement saying she was also probing “the performance of [laboratories] in complying with procedures for conducting tests.” With the cow that was suspected of having the disease, she reported: “Auditors noted an unusual pattern of conflicting test results on one sample.”

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, an outside testing agency, confirmed that a sample from an animal in November 2004 tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Yet Johanns, who took the reins of the Agriculture Department early this year in a Bush cabinet shake-up, insists that Fong has overstepped her bounds. “I was asked by the Senate and the president to operate the department,” Johanns said. “She could recommend; she could strongly urge. But then the question is whether it’s an operational decision.”

He reportedly learned of Fong’s order from his chief of staff after the new testing was already under way. He charges that it’s up for debate whether Fong had the authority to order the new tests, and asserts: “It’s my domain.”

This is not the first time Fong has found herself in the eye of the storm.

After allegations of misconduct arose in the handling of the first cow with mad cow disease, Fong launched a criminal investigation.

“Currently we are investigating allegations surrounding the actual state of the diseased cow before it went to slaughter,” Fong testified last year before the House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations. “So that’s a criminal investigation that’s open, ongoing, active and it’s focused on that issue.”

Fong’s investigation concluded that there was no criminal negligence, but in July she released an audit of the USDA’s testing program and concluded it had serious flaws that could undermine its credibility and lead to questionable estimates of how widespread the disease is in America.

Fong recently re-opened investigations started during the administration of Johanns’ predecessor, Ann Veneman. Veneman began a reform push on testing U.S. beef, but her efforts eventually ran aground amid battles between competing interests, including the beef industry, scientists and consumer activists.

The two behind-the-scenes audits follow complaints by several cow-state senators over policies and procedures in testing for mad cow disease.

Fong said in a statement that “our field work is ongoing” with results expected “late this summer.”

USDA’s Top Cop

As a young girl, Phyllis Fong had a hankering for the law. Those interests began in her childhood, kindled by her father.

“When I was growing up, I remember searching, as all kids do, for a career path that matched my talents,” she said in an article for the USDA. “And my father said to me, at one point in high school, that he really thought law school would be right for me, that I would be a tremendous lawyer. I had never thought about that as an option.”

Fong’s family had emigrated from Hawai‘i to China generations before, in the mid-1800s. Unlike a lot of APA families who insist that the children follow in the family business, Fong recalls, “He was a doctor and yet he did not suggest I go into medical school. I think he was tired of my arguing with him about everything!”

“I had a wonderful experience growing up. They call Hawai‘i a melting pot because of its multi-racial and multi-cultural society. I always felt that everyone there had the opportunity to become anything. It didn’t matter what color, what sex, what race, what ethnic heritage you were, if you were interested in something you could pursue it,” she said.

An unusual route led to her toward the senior job as USDA’s Inspector General. After studying Asian studies and finishing her law degree, she intended to become an international lawyer specializing in trade and immigration.

But when Fong arrived in Washington, D.C., she got a job with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which at the time was studying immigration policy. One thing led to another, and a colleague who was the Inspector General at the U.S. Small Business Administration asked her to become her special assistant

“I realized this was a good opportunity. Who can be against going after fraud and abuse? Who can be against economy and efficiency in government?” Fong has been in the field ever since, and oversees about 600 employees divided almost evenly between investigators and auditors.

Name: Phyllis K. Fong

Salary: $136,900

Position: Inspector General, USDA. She’s responsible for conducting and supervising audits and evaluations, as well as investigations and law enforcement efforts.

Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Family: Married, two daughters, ages 4 and 7

Education: BA degree in Asian Studies, Pomona College; Juris Doctorate, Vanderbilt University School of Law

Past Experience: She was Inspector General of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 1999-2002 after holding several positions with the SBA, including Assistant Inspector General for Management and Legal Counsel and Assistant Inspector General for Management and Policy. In the early 1980s, she had served as assistant general counsel for the Legal Services Corporation and, before that, as an attorney with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Hobbies/Interests: Needlepoint

Priorities: “To instill the message within USDA that OIG’s mission is not just to audit and investigate. Our mission is to work in partnership with the Department to manage programs more effectively and deal with fraud and abuse.”

The Associated Press and USDA contributed to this report.

Somebody's got to keep 'em honest. That's what checks and balances are all about.
 

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