Ballot Box

Slamming Dorr

How a Bush appointee manipulated farm subsidies.

Responding to a series of corporate scandals last month, President Bush castigated businessmen who practice moral “relativism” and “cut ethical corners.” “Our leaders of business must set high and clear expectations of conduct,” he said. But this month, Bush appointed to a top post in his Agriculture Department a confessed corner-cutter: a businessman who has admitted to pushing the limits of the law to boost his farm subsidies. Bush used his power of recess appointment to make Tom Dorr undersecretary of agriculture for rural development on Aug. 6, while Congress was out of town. He made the appointment in this unorthodox way because the Senate Agriculture Committee, with nine of 10 Republicans choosing not to vote, had already declined to approve Dorr’s nomination.

Initially, liberals threw a bunch of garbage at Dorr to stall his nomination. They whined about his enthusiasm for big farms, ignoring the president’s prerogative to appoint people who agree with him philosophically. They also portrayed Dorr as a racist for saying in 1999 that three Iowa counties had succeeded in part because they were “very focused … very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background.” To accuse someone of racial animus for a statement so obscure, technical, and open to multiple interpretations degrades the meaning of the term.

Then, in February of this year, somebody leaked to the Des Moines Register an audiotape of a phone conversation between Dorr and another person, evidently his brother. The fact that Dorr hasn’t questioned the tape’s authenticity or its origin suggests that it may have been made by government investigators. On it, Dorr said he had arranged two family trusts “to quite frankly avoid minimum payment limitations.” Under the law, no person or corporation could receive more than $50,000 a year in federal farm subsidies. Dorr was trying to evade that cap. Was his method of doing so proper? “I have no idea if it’s legal. Nobody’s ever called me on it,” he said on the tape. “I suspect if they’d audit, and if somebody decided to come in and take a look at this thing, they could probably, if they really wanted to, raise hell with us.”

In March, Dorr came before the Senate and was asked to explain himself. He testified that none of his accounting maneuvers “was out of the ordinary” and that he knew “many, many farmers who have done that over the years.” Dorr’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said that while government investigators had found that Dorr’s arrangement “wasn’t properly structured,” they had also concluded “that there was no scheme on the part of the family to defraud the government.” A White House spokesman reiterated that Bush stood behind Dorr, noting that Dorr had “repaid all the money that was in question” and had “corrected his financial arrangements to make sure he’s in full compliance with the law.” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman urged the Agriculture Committee to approve Dorr, pointing out that the local U.S. attorney had decided not to prosecute him.

In short, the debate over Dorr boiled down to whether complying with the letter of the law, or at least not explicitly intending to defraud the government, was good enough. The White House thought it was. Evidently, the Agriculture Committee didn’t agree. On Aug. 1, just before adjourning for the congressional recess, the committee voted to make no recommendation on Dorr’s nomination. Five days later, Bush gave Dorr a unilateral recess appointment, and Veneman declared, “There is no doubt that [Dorr] will manage this agency with integrity.”

Bush’s hypocrisy about high ethical standards is only half the story. The other half is his administration’s hypocrisy about farm subsidies. In a letter three years ago, Dorr posed as a critic of corporate welfare for farmers, accusing Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and other lawmakers of “maintaining a constituency dependent on government revenue.” Dorr told senators that through “taxation and subsidy games, you collectively are responsible for turning Iowa into a state of peasants totally dependent on your largesse.” But at his hearing last March, Dorr defended his handout hogging by telling senators that he and other farmers tried to avoid caps on payments just as taxpayers try to limit their tax liability. He seemed oblivious to the distinction between paying less money to the government in taxes and getting more money from it in subsidies.

Before Bush made the recess appointment, Harkin warned that if he did, Harkin might reopen and expand a Senate investigation of Dorr’s finances. That’s a good idea, but it shouldn’t be left to the Democrats. At Dorr’s hearing last March, they tried to use the embarrassment of his accounting games to make him soften his criticism of farm subsidies. That’s exactly wrong. Dorr was right in his criticism and wrong in his conduct.