Sonny Perdue fuels ethics scrutiny as Trump’s rural envoy

On top of his overt appeal to reelect the president, Perdue has kept many farmers in Trump’s corner by doling out unprecedented sums of taxpayer aid to offset the industry’s losses after years of trade turmoil and painful biofuel policies. Democrats have questioned the practice, but have made almost no effort to attach any strings to the payments. Now, Perdue is facing a fresh round of criticism for requiring federal contractors to stuff promotional letters from Trump into millions of USDA food boxes distributed to needy families, over the objections of lawmakers and many food banks.

The Agriculture Department says these activities aren’t political and rejects the allegation that the signed letters are a violation of the Hatch Act, the federal law preventing executive branch employees from engaging in some political activity.

Perdue, who has visited all 50 states since he joined the administration in 2017, is a crucial tie to rural voters whom Trump is counting on to show up in force on Nov. 3. Running up huge rural margins in crucial battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as Trump did in 2016, will be trickier this time as many of those areas continue to feel the economic sting of his trade war with China, a lackluster pandemic response and ethanol blending waivers his administration handed out to oil refiners.

Polling from Fox News in July found that 49 percent of rural voters supported Trump and 40 percent were backing Biden — a much narrower gap than Trump’s 25-point lead over Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls.

The secretary has made dozens of trips around the country to meet with agricultural producers, rural businesses and local leaders. He frequently vouches for Trump’s affinity for farmers — crucial reassurance for those in the industry, considering the president’s background as a reality TV star and real estate developer in Manhattan, a world away from farming. Perdue has also spread the administration’s message, for example, about the need to take on Chinese trade practices even if it means immediate pain for producers.

Not all farmers and ranchers are enamored with Perdue, who has implemented regulatory policies that effectively boost large agribusinesses at the expense of small farmers. That trend is what convinced John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, to back Biden in November, POLITICO reported last month.

But for the most part, the rapid increase of money flowing into farm country and the sustained rural outreach by Trump officials and surrogates appear to be delivering results. A poll from DTN and Zogby Analytics in September gave Trump an 18-point edge over Biden among farmers.

Most critically, Perdue has designed a series of trade and pandemic relief programs that have funneled unprecedented sums of taxpayer dollars to the farm industry, offsetting most of the sector’s financial losses since 2018. The government was already projected to pay farmers a record $37 billion this year — not including another $14 billion in additional payments that USDA rolled out last month. Under the Obama administration, farm subsidies ranged from roughly $10 billion to $13 billion each year.

The payouts are so large that World Trade Organization members recently confronted the U.S. for potentially running afoul of its commitments to limit “trade-distorting” farm subsidies to roughly $19 billion per year.

Trump routinely points to the money at campaign rallies as his biggest gift to farmers and ranchers, who remain among his most loyal supporters.

“Any farmers in this group? Because you’ve got to love Trump,” he said at a September rally in Mosinee, Wis. “Did everybody get that money?”

The president’s use of the program as a political prop has angered Democrats to the point that they threatened to crack down on the USDA payments in a recent stopgap spending bill to avert a government shutdown.

Democrats and watchdog groups also allege that the bailout programs designed by Perdue’s office have disproportionately benefited Southern states and larger farms. A report from the Government Accountability Office last month showed that under the 2019 trade aid program, the average payment to producers in Georgia, Perdue’s home state, was more than $42,500 — the highest rate of any state and more than double the national average of $16,500.

“He certainly put together a program that favored the crops in his state,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, adding that “the administration needs to stop playing favorites.”

USDA has repeatedly rejected suggestions of favoritism, noting that the tariff relief payments were linked to the trade-related losses in each commodity sector. The department also points out that while large operations represent just one in 10 farms, they account for more than half of all farmland and nearly 80 percent of total agricultural production value — meaning their trade-related losses were greater than those of smaller farms.

The North Carolina event in August with the president and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and White House adviser, was held to showcase the $4 billion food box delivery program and gather feedback from participating packers and farmers. But in a lengthy endorsement afterward, Perdue praised Trump as a champion for “forgotten people” and a tireless worker with “business speed, not government speed,” among other plaudits.

The nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington claims Perdue’s remarks were a clear case of political activity in violation of the Hatch Act . “Secretary Perdue’s behavior is beyond inappropriate for someone in his position,” CREW Deputy Director Donald Sherman said at the time.

Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, called the incident a “point blank Hatch Act violation.”

“That overt mixture of his official government duties and expressing advocacy for a candidate in an upcoming election is totally prohibited,” he said.

Most recently, Perdue is under scrutiny for requiring signed letters from Trump to be placed in millions of food boxes for hungry families. The letters include promotional language about the administration’s efforts to “support America’s recovery every step of the way” along with health recommendations like urging recipients to wash their hands and practice social distancing.

Democrats aren’t buying the department’s statement that politics have played “zero role” in the aid program.

“Using a federal relief program to distribute a self-promoting letter from the president to American families just three months before the presidential election is inappropriate and a violation of federal law,” a group of House Democrats wrote to Perdue in August. “We strongly urge you to end the practice immediately.”

But even if Perdue’s activities are deemed to be a violation of the ethics law, the consequences are likely to be minimal: The Office of Special Counsel has determined that at least 12 senior Trump officials have violated the Hatch Act over the course of the administration, but let most off with a warning letter. Trump declined to act on the one case that was sent to him for action, which involved former senior counselor Kellyanne Conway.

Trump’s White House so far “really has not disciplined any political appointee who has been found in violation of the Hatch Act,” Schwellenbach said.

He added: “It’s not always clear when something is a violation of the Hatch Act versus something that’s just a gross, potentially abusive use of the powers of incumbency.”