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Published May 16, 2011, 05:15 AM

The ‘rules’ on ethics

FARGO, N.D. — Jack Russell, acting state conservationist for North Dakota, declines to discuss Tony Valvo’s particular allegations of ethics violations, but he says he can discuss ethics and conflict-of-interest policies.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Jack Russell, acting state conservationist for North Dakota, declines to discuss Tony Valvo’s particular allegations of ethics violations, but he says he can discuss ethics and conflict-of-interest policies.

In an initial phone interview, Russell said that in general, NRCS employees are allowed to work for farmers, with prior approval from their supervisor.

If there were no funds exchanging from the NRCS to the farmer that require certain tillage practices, or a waterway, there wouldn’t be any ethics concerns, he says. If the farmer had an active conservation contract, or if they’d already “done the work” on cost-share program, or the like, the NRCS employee could get approval to work for them. If the farmer had contracts but was outside the employee’s county, the NRCS employee should “still get approval” but there probably would not be a problem.

“Something like that would be on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

A few minutes after hanging up, Russell called Agweek back to say he’d rechecked the rules.

Russell now says an NRCS employee can’t work on “any farm that had participation in the USDA programs, including Farm Service Agency programs.” If an NRCS employee worked for a farmer in the county he is stationed in, the farmer would have to get conservation assistance from a neighboring county.

Paul King, an NRCS state administrative officer, responding to Agweek’s request for a written policy, answers in yet another way: There are “no agency regulations/directives specifically addressing workers or managers working on farms of producers that have contracts,” King writes, and only that they need “prior approval for outside employment.” King says the only employees who need advance approval are those who are “required to file financial disclosure statements every year.”

“None of our county-level employees are financial disclosure filers, and none are required to seek advance approval for outside employment,” King says.

Still, all employees must comply with “government-wide rules on outside employment, conflict of interest, etc.,” King says.

Employees should consult with supervisors for “informal advice” to avoid ethical violations.

“On the other hand,” he says, “we don’t begrudge any employee wanting to increase their income by holding down another job as long as there is no conflict with their federal job.”

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