Billy Sol Estes and Congress are why the USDA is ordering machine guns

The tea-soaked conspiracy crowd has a new rai·son d’être this week: a procurement request from the USDA for machine guns and ammo. As notes, “The request has captured the attention of many conservative, pro-gun websites…which have raised questions about it.” These same gun loving web sites even managed to excite an Oklahoma Congressional member, Representative Jim Bridenstine, who sent a letter to the USDA demanding answers.

It’s ironic that sites that support arming every single human being for any reason object to arming federal agents who are enforcing criminal laws. And it’s unfortunate that Congressional members are unaware of laws passed by Congress.

The weapons requested are for the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), tasked with investigating criminal acts related to the USDA’s own specific areas of interest. Congress established the Offices of Inspector General within each of the departments, such as the USDA, in the Inspector General Act of 1978. The USDA’s OIG was, however, created administratively in 1962 following an incident known as the Billy Sol Estes Scandal.

Who is Billy Sol Estes, and why was there a scandal related to him? According to the New York Times obituary for Billy Sol Estes:

In the late 1950s, Mr. Estes launched a bewildering array of interlocking enterprises involving liquid fertilizer, storage tanks, grain elevators, cotton crops, illegally borrowed money, secret payments to farmers and thousands of sham mortgages. It leaned heavily on government programs that compensated farmers for storing surplus grain and for lands taken under eminent domain laws to build public works projects.

There were clandestine lease-back arrangements, phony mortgages on nonexistent fertilizer storage tanks, illegal transfers of federal-compensation rights, kickbacks for bankers and bribes for Washington. The scams were so complex that prosecutors eventually had to break them down into 50 state and federal indictments.

The cover was blown in early 1962, when The Pecos Independent and Enterprise published an exposé by its city editor, Oscar Griffin Jr., on thousands of mortgages for nonexistent fertilizer tanks. The articles, which did not name Mr. Estes, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and led to an avalanche of investigations.

You get a feel for how widespread the corruption was, especially in the local community where Estes was treated almost like a god, when you read how the key Estes investigator was found battered about the head, carbon monoxide in his bloodstream, with five rifle blasts to his chest and his death was originally ruled a suicide by the local authorities.

One of the outcomes of the multi-year investigation and criminal trial was the establishment of the first non-military OIG, embedded in the USDA. The reason for the establishment was to facilitate cooperation between auditing and investigating enforcement arms—a cooperation that was missing, as was painfully discovered with the Estes investigation.

When you consider the fate of the original Estes investigator, including those five bullet holes, you might understand why the USDA would be ordering bullet proof vests. And it can do so because it was granted law enforcement authority via Section 1337 of the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981, which specifically authorized that properly designated agents could carry firearms, conduct searches and seizures, execute warrants for arrest, and in specific circumstances, make arrests without warrants.

If all of this was too involved for the good Congressman from Oklahoma, a quick search of the USDA OIG web site provides the answer to his question about why the USDA needs weapons, and where it gets its authority for doing so:

Pursuant to the Inspector General Act of 1978 and Section 1337 of the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 (P.L. 97-98), OIG Investigations is the law enforcement arm of the Department, with Department-wide investigative jurisdiction. OIG Special Agents conduct investigations of significant criminal activities involving USDA programs, operations, and personnel, and are authorized to make arrests, execute warrants, and carry firearms. The types of investigations conducted by OIG Special Agents involve criminal activities such as frauds in subsidy, price support, benefits, and insurance programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery; extortion; smuggling; and assaults on employees. Investigations involving criminal activity that affects the health and safety of the public, such as meat packers who knowingly sell hazardous food products and individuals who tamper with food regulated by USDA, are also high-profile investigative priorities. In addition, OIG Special Agents are poised to provide emergency law enforcement response to USDA declared emergencies and suspected incidents of terrorism affecting USDA regulated industries, as well as USDA programs, operations, personnel, and installations, in coordination with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies, as appropriate.

I can understand why conservative pundits avoid Google like a plague when it comes to investigating their next controversy of the week, but I’m assuming that Representative Bridenstine’s staff, which cost tax payers $915,521 in 2013, is capable of using a search engine before he takes pen to paper and demands explanations from a government agency about why it is enforcing laws established by the very organization in which he works.