Ag Secretary Visits Portland Following Leak to Pingree, Press Herald


PORTLAND – U.S. Agricultural Secretary Thomas Vilsack on Thursday visited the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland  to lecture children on the national security and educational implications of obesity.

“We must continue to take action today to ensure that today’s young people grow up healthy and strong, or we will see more challenges – everything from soaring health care costs to diminished national security and decreased business competitiveness,” said Vilsack in a USDA news release. “Improving the nutrition of our young people has tremendous implications for our country’s future,” said Vilsack, who was joined by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and representatives from the medical, nutrition, public health, education, military, and business communities, according the press release.

The press release goes on to tout USDA’s recent notable accomplishments including a 100 percent increase since 2010 in the number of farmers markets and farm stands now accepting payment through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – commonly referred to as Food Stamps.

Vilsack’s visit comes just ten days after The Maine Wire broke the news that personnel within the Agricultural Department had leaked information to the office of Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) — information which subsequently wound up in the pages of the Portland Press Herald, a newspaper of which Pingree and her billionaire husband S. Donald Sussman are majority stakeholders.

The information leaked through Pingree to the Press Herald concerned Gov. Paul R. LePage’s request for federal permission to place photo identification on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, the medium most commonly used to conduct transactions involving food stamps.

In a Feb. 21 letter, the Governor rebuffed Vilsack for failing to communicate the USDA’s decision to the Blaine House before taking to Democratic members of Congress and Maine newspapers.

“This is becoming a pattern for the Federal Government,” wrote LePage. “While the United States Postal Service may be in financial trouble, they will still deliver the mail if Washington would be kind enough to send us these letters before sharing with everyone else,” wrote LePage.

The Governor had originally wanted to place photo ID on all EBT cards as a way to reduce fraud. In the USDA’s decision rejecting his request, the Department claimed that requiring photo ID for EBT cards would violate cardholders’ rights and would not fight fraud.

The Maine Wire submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Pingree’s office regarding the leak, but her legal counsel denied that request on the basis of congressional privilege. A similar request sent to the USDA’s FOIA Officer was returned early this week with a note indicating that that officer is no longer an employee. The Maine Wire has submitted an additional FOIA request to the USDA and will be following up on the results.

By S.E. Robinson

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About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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