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This past week, more than 100,000 farmers, federal and state officials, and industry representatives descended on Boone to see the latest in agriculture technology at the annual Farm Progress Show.
But there was an exclusive event before the official festivities started Tuesday.
On Monday, Aug. 29, top agriculture officials from 17 states and major agribusinesses — including Bayer and John Deere — were invited to a private dinner organized by Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agricultural corporations, according to emails Investigate Midwest obtained related to the 2021 and 2022 dinners.
It is unclear how many attended.
ADM lobbyists have hosted such private dinners at previous Farm Progress Shows, the emails show.
Chris Riley, a registered lobbyist for ADM, reserved a block of hotel rooms for the officials last year and this year and offered to buy their dinner “if allowed,” although the officials reached by Investigate Midwest said they paid their own expenses.
The officials oversee their states’ farming industries, including ones, such as corn and soybean growing, in which the agricultural giants are heavily invested.
But even though a lobbyist organized it, the dinner does not appear to need to be reported to state authorities, according to Investigate Midwest’s review of state lobbying rules and interviews with lobbying experts.
However, the dinner does raise questions about potentially improper influence, the experts said.
Are the rules sufficient?
“Much of the lobbying in statehouses is done by large national/multinational corporations which are more likely to hold events outside of the states they are lobbying,” said Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst at OpenSecrets, a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit that tracks data on campaign finance and lobbying.
“It raises questions about whether the gift and expenditure rules in that state are sufficient to provide the public with an accurate view of who is lobbying their public officials.”
ADM, which has facilities in Cedar Rapids, and other agribusiness attendees have spent millions of dollars over the past decade lobbying federal officials, according to OpenSecrets.
But their efforts at the state level are harder to discern because state disclosure laws are often weaker than federal ones, experts said.
“Some states ban gifts only if they are given to influence government action,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit that focuses on industry influence of government.
“No public official or lobbyist would ever claim they received or gave a gift in order to bribe an official."
ADM has not reported any lobbying efforts related to the dinner in any of the 17 states over the past two years, according to Investigate Midwest’s review of lobbying disclosure reports.
Riley, the ADM employee who organized the dinner, is registered to lobby in several of the officials’ states.
“We regularly communicate with government officials and policy makers in the states where we operate to help them understand the priorities and challenges of our industry and our customers,” an ADM spokesperson said in a statement.
“Events such as Farm Progress are good opportunities to focus attention on the specific issues facing the ag industry. All outreach is done in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.”
The public officials who responded to Investigate Midwest’s questions said, despite ADM reserving rooms, their departments paid for the rooms and related costs.
For example, a spokesperson for Kansas Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam said, “We appreciate the assistance in making the reservation, but the expenses will be covered by our own travel budget.”
The hotel rooms cost hundreds of dollars a night — $300 last year, close to $200 this year — and Riley said the officials could manage their rooms through him: “I will keep track of the rooms for the hotel so you will only need to inform me, not the hotel.”
When the Farm Progress Show was in Decatur, Ill., last year, ADM hosted the dinner at the Decatur Club, which requires $90 monthly individual membership fees.
“If allowed,” Riley wrote, “ADM would like to purchase your dinner.”
Riley used the personal email address of Mike Strain, Louisiana’s commissioner of agriculture and forestry.
When asked why Riley used that account, Strain said, in full, “I don’t know. You will need to ask him as he is the one who sent it.”
Strain said he would not attend the 2022 Farm Progress Show.
Other companies attending the dinner, including Cargill, Corteva and Syngenta, are not registered to lobby in the officials’ states.
The dinner was not part of the Farm Progress Show’s official schedule, said Dena Morgan, a spokeswoman for the event. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said.
Public officials: It’s important to engage with industry
It marked the seventh dinner between the public officials and the agribusinesses at the Farm Progress Show.
Last year, officials from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota attended, according to the emails.
Investigate Midwest reached out to all 17 officials on Riley’s 2022 emails. Five confirmed their attendance at the Farm Progress Show, and seven said they couldn’t make it. The others either didn’t say or didn’t respond.
The officials who responded said the dinner was an opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues and learn from companies integral to the industry they regulate.
“In order to be an informed leader, it is important to listen to and engage with all industries, entities and individuals affected by the department’s regulatory and advocacy functions,” said a spokesperson for Missouri Agriculture Director Chris Chinn, who planned to attend the Farm Progress Show this year.
When asked why the director’s engagement could not happen in a public setting, the spokesperson said the dinner “is not ours to determine whether (it’s) public or private.”
The emails mentioned some companies that were expected to attend the dinner, but they didn’t provide a comprehensive list.
Bayer, Corteva and John Deere were anticipated to attend this year, while Cargill and Syngenta attended at least last year, according to emails.
Bayer spokeswoman Susan Luke said Bayer employees who have participated in the dinner in the past have found the conversations “worthwhile.”
“Past topics of discussion have included the need for broadband in rural America, the importance of our renewable fuels industry to support American agriculture and, most often, the condition of the current harvest across the country,” she said.
John Deere spokeswoman Jennifer Hartmann said the company “took all necessary steps to ensure (its) participation is compliant.”
“The gathering, organized by ADM, is an opportunity for companies with a presence at the Farm Progress Show to educate state directors on the latest developments and innovation within the agriculture industry,” she said.
Food — for example, dinner — provided to a public official in the executive branch of government is considered a gift and, with some exceptions, needs to be reported as such, according to Investigate Midwest's review of regulations governing relationships between public officials and lobbying groups in the majority of 17 states included in the emails.
However, most laws make exceptions when it comes to reporting food that public officials have received from lobbyists. In the majority of the 17 states, food received by an individual working in the executive branch when representing the state at an event does not have to be reported.
In Kansas, for example, executive branch officials are not allowed to receive gifts, but laws have exceptions for food. Lobbyists, though, must report the activity if it meets the definition of lobbying.
"If an executive branch official attends the dinner and someone else pays for it, yes, it is a gift, and it would be reported if given by a registered lobbyist. If the gift is given by any other entity then reporting is not required," said Mark Skoglund, executive director at Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
"If the meal is paid back or paid for by the official, then it is not a gift."
One of the strictest statutes governing such gifts is Wisconsin’s.
Public officials are prohibited from accepting anything of value from registered lobbyists. The state’s agriculture director, Randy Romanski, said he has not attended the dinners.
When a lobbyist pays for a meal, it comes with certain expectations, said Jay Heck, executive director of the Wisconsin branch of Common Cause.
“If that meal comes from a lobbyist, the lobbyist has an agenda,” he said. “And the agenda, for that lobbyist, is to get a piece of legislation that's favorable to his or her company passed into law.”
By making exceptions for reporting food a government official receives from influential groups, the ability to track that influence is lost, he said.
“If someone doesn't record it,” he said, “how are you going to find out?”
Mónica Cordero is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
Investigate Midwest is an independent, not-for-profit newsroom. Its mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism.