Biden’s choice to lead USDA helped monitor OxyContin maker

Vilsack also discloses lottery winnings

Vilsack testified in 2019 on the United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on Trade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vilsack testified in 2019 on the United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on Trade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 11, 2021 at 1:30pm

President-elect Joe Biden’s designee for Agriculture secretary worked not only as a top dairy industry executive in 2020 but also as a monitor overseeing Purdue Pharma’s adherence to an agreement to stop aggressively marketing opioid painkillers.

Tom Vilsack, CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, also had a lucky streak last year in the Iowa lottery with Powerball winnings of $150,000.

Vilsack included these details in required filings with the Office of Government Ethics that were posted online Saturday.

The former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary during both of President Barack Obama’s terms reported more than $1.3 million in income in 2020. The bulk of the money came from his $833,000 salary as president and CEO of the export council, but Vilsack, a lawyer, also reported $145,625 as a court-approved monitor in the Purdue Pharma L.P. Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settlement case.

The pharmaceutical company is the maker of OxyContin and is under fire for its role in the surge of opioid addiction and related overdose deaths. As agriculture secretary, Vilsack cited the rise of opioid-related deaths in rural communities as an issue of concern and was part of an interagency effort to address addiction to the painkillers.

Purdue Pharma selected Vilsack for the monitor position in February. His appointment gave him access to the company’s employees, records and facilities and required him to report his findings to the court and to Purdue Pharma’s board of directors.

Vilsack faces criticism by some farm and advocacy groups that he is too tied to corporate agribusiness, focused on larger farm operations and more of an incrementalist than a reformer. He faced similar opposition when Obama nominated him. In response to critics, Vilsack has done virtual meetings with groups representing Black farmers and the produce industry to discuss their concerns.

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In the document posted Saturday, Vilsack reported a $30,228 housing allowance from the export council; $75,000 from his role as strategic adviser on food and water initiatives to the Colorado State University System; $92,500 in fees from the political consulting firm Link and Associates and $36,000 in retirement pay from the Iowa Public Employment System. He resigned from the consulting company on Oct. 30.

He also received a $10,000 honorarium for a Nov. 20 speech to Paine Schwartz Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in investing in sustainable food chains.

Vilsack said in the filing that he'll resign from the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the Purdue Pharma post, and give up his role at Colorado State University if he is confirmed.

His wife, Christie Vilsack, will continue to work for the Colorado State University System as a senior adviser on K-12 educational programming. Christie Vilsack is a former Democratic House candidate who unsuccessfully challenged then-incumbent Steve King, a Republican, in 2012.

During the Obama administration, she was the senior adviser for international education for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2013 to 2016.    

The single most valuable asset listed for the Vilsacks is farmland in Davis County, Iowa, that is managed for them by Mid States Farm Management Co. in Ottumwa, Iowa. They lease the land in southeast Iowa to a farmer on a cash-rent basis that brings in $50,000 to $100,000 a year in rent. The land is valued between $1 million and $5 million.

Some of the land is enrolled in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays a set amount per acre to farmers under contract to remove environmentally sensitive land from crop production. In 2020, the Vilsacks received $14,726 in payments. Most land in the Conservation Reserve Program is enrolled for about 10 years.

The Agriculture Department’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program also provided a one-time cost share payment of $11,039 to build a farm pond for soil health and to conserve ground and surface water, the ethics document said.

The Vilsacks owned the land during Tom Vilsack’s tenure as agriculture secretary and have agreed as they did during the Obama administration to have the management company deal directly with the tenant.

Tom Vilsack committed in writing in his ethics agreement filed over the weekend to not participate “personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predicable effect on the value of my real property” unless he receives a written waiver the action qualifies for a regulatory exemption.

He also signed a similar pledge on the annual Conservation Reserve Program payments that are funded through the Commodity Credit Corp. As secretary, he would be chairman of the board that oversees the fund.

“I will not participate substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge will have a direct and predictable effect on any payments I receive from USDA programs until I obtain a waiver,” Vilsack’s ethics agreement said. “However, I understand that the waiver will not allow me to participate in particular matters involving specific parties in which the real property, my tenant or Mid States Farm Management Co. either is or represents a party,” the agreement said.

Vilsack said he would not to participate in any action that would affect his conservation payments or affect the price of farmland in Davis County or adjoining counties.