USDA auditor requests funds for cyber security, improper payment fixes

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2015- USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong told House appropriators Friday that her office would focus on cyber security and improper payment challenges with its fiscal year 2016 budget request for $98.9 million.

Fong said the money - up from an estimated $95 million this year - would support the agency's current activities as well as fund two potential improvements to its operations. With $1.6 million, OIG would create a Center of Excellence intended to improve USDA's oversight of improper payments, or those that should not have been made or were made in the wrong amount.

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“The Center would have a data analysis component which would determine if there were any data anomalies within the USDA high-risk programs' payments,” Fold told the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.

Fong said the office needs $700,000 for additional audit work to help address “the material weakness” in IT [information technology] security.

“Given the continuing threats posed to the USDA IT infrastructure,” she said the IG office needs additional resources to make sure appropriate reviews are being conducted to test USDA's security controls.

“The requested funding would enable OIG to conduct simultaneous reviews on the most critical and vulnerable controls for federal systems, such as access control, business continuity, and disaster recovery,” Fong said.

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Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said the weakness in IT security “really bothered” him due to the fact that USDA data systems store producers' information.

“That's a dangerous situation for a lot of farmers around the U.S.,” he said.

Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., echoed concerns of several panel members that USDA is not in compliance with the Improper Payment Information Act (IPIA). 

In an audit released in April, OIG found USDA out of compliance with IPIA for the third consecutive year, and would have saved at least $416 million in 2013 if it had met the reduction targets in the legislation. The audit said USDA made $6.2 billion in improper payments in 2013. 

“They know what they need to do,” Fong said of the officials in charge of USDA programs, noting that some high-risk departments, including the Risk Management Agency, which administers crop insurance, are still behind in making adjustments. 

She said the School Lunch Program within the Food and Nutrition Service is also at high risk for improper payments.

In the audit, OIG also cited the School Breakfast Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, for making improper payments. 

Fong said another OIG audit on the department's efforts to comply with IPIA will be released later this year.

On another subject, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, asked Fong to investigate reports of animal abuse at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. “Why taxpayer dollars were being spent on something that is clearly inappropriate raises a lot of questions,” she said.

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