USDA using satellite images to prosecute farmers for cases of c

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

WICHITA, Kan. -- For decades, satellites have monitored crop conditions around the globe -- helping traders predict futures prices in commodities markets and governments anticipate crop shortages.

But those satellite images are now increasingly turning up in courtrooms across the nation as the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency cracks down on farmers involved in crop insurance fraud.

The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency -- which administers credit and farm programs -- also uses satellite imaging to monitor compliance with its programs.

Across government and private industry alike, satellite imaging technology is being used in water rights litigation and in prosecution of environmental cases as diverse as a high-density hog confinement facility's violations of waste discharge regulations to injury damage lawsuits stemming from herbicide applications. The technology is also used to monitor the forestry and mining industries.

"A lot of farmers would be shocked at the detail you can tell -- what it does is keep honest folks honest," said G.A. "Art" Barnaby Jr., an agricultural economist at Kansas State University who recently sent out an e-mail warning farmers on his distribution list of the technology's growing use in courtrooms.

Satellite technology -- which takes images at roughly eight-day intervals -- can be used to monitor when a farmer plants his acreage, how he irrigates it and what crops he grows. If anomalies are found in a farm's insurance claim, investigators can search satellite photos dating back years to determine cropping practices on individual fields.

What is catching the attention of Barnaby and others is a spate of recent cases involving the use of satellite imaging to prosecute farmers. The largest so far has been a North Carolina case which ensnared eight people allegedly involved in a crop fraud scheme at the tomato growing farms of Robert and Vicki Warren.

All eight were convicted. In September, Robert Warren was sentenced to 76 months in prison, his wife to 66 months. They were also ordered to forfeit $7.3 million and pay $9.15 million in restitution.

Prosecutors are now selling the Warren farms to recoup the fraudulent claims, said Richard Edwards, the assistant U.S. Attorney in North Carolina who prosecuted the case. The couple was collecting another $3.8 million in crop insurance when federal prosecutors put a freeze on it.

The Warrens and most of the other defendants pleaded guilty, but in the one Warren-related case that went to a jury, prosecutors climaxed their case with the satellite images and the testimony of a satellite image analyst.

"It was impressive to the jury to have this presentation about this eye in the sky and satellite imagery and a trained expert. ... In our case it did not make the case, but it sure helped and strengthened and improved the case," Edwards said.

The Risk Management Agency is now involved in three other multimillion-dollar crop insurance fraud cases -- two in the Midwest and one in the Southeast -- that have yet to be filed that will rival the Warren case in scope, said Michael Hand, RMA's deputy administrator for compliance.

While fewer than 100 cases have been prosecuted using satellite imaging since the RMA started its congressionally mandated crackdown in 2001, data mining -- coupled with satellite imaging -- pinpoints about 1,500 farms annually that are put on a watch list for possible crop fraud, Hand said. Producers are notified they are being watched and ground inspections are done on the suspect farms throughout the growing season.

In the first year, RMA's spot checklist generated by the satellite data saved taxpayers an estimated $72.2 million in fraudulent crop insurance claims, Hand said. In 2002 the savings was $110 million. The agency also estimates it saved $81 million in 2003 and $71 million in 2004 just on those 1,500 suspect farmers singled out each year.

The agency stepped up its enforcement efforts after the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000 mandated it do data mining to ferret out false claims, Hand said. Every year, it ships claims data to the Center for Agriculture Excellence at Tarleton State University in Stephensville, Texas, where analysts look for anomalies in claims. They generate a list of claims for further investigation, with satellite imaging pulled on the most egregious cases.

But at the same time when farmers are under greater scrutiny from the sky, the two aging U.S. satellites used for agricultural purposes have malfunctioned.

For a year now, scientists have devised programs to interpolate missing picture data from the Landsat 7 -- and transferred more of the workload to the older workhorse Landsat 5 satellite. In recent weeks, Landsat 5 also developed problems, said John Brown, a private satellite imaging analyst in Columbia, Mo., whose expert testimony has been used in nearly 30 such cases, including the Warren case.

"The U.S. satellites are no longer working properly -- we are not keeping up with technology," Brown said.

Brown said he relies on the Landsat images because they are the only U.S. satellites that can give him the kind of multispectrum imaging at an affordable price to look at infrared and other light bands that he needs to distinguish crops and compile other data .

Just as the U.S. satellites were first sent up decades ago to keep track of things like the wheat harvest in the old Soviet Union, other countries have also launched satellites to keep track of U.S. crops. Germany, France and others have satellites monitoring crop conditions, and many other private firms sell those images in the U.S.

"Everybody spies on everybody. I was stunned to hear that myself," Edwards said. "Someday, I may have to rely on a French satellite to convict an American citizen."


IN REVIEW

* EYE IN THE SKY: Prosecutors are increasingly relying on satellite imagery to go after farmers suspected of agriculture fraud.

THE PAYOFF: In 2001, satellite data saved U.S. taxpayers about $72 million in fraudulent crop insurance claims. The next year, the savings was $110 million, $81 million in 2003 and $71 million in 2004.

* SPIES LIKE US: Just as U.S. satellites were launched decades ago to track things like the wheat harvest in the old Soviet Union, other countries have also launched satellites to monitor U.S. crops. Germany, France, Nigeria and others have satellites tracking crop conditions, and many other private firms sell those images in the U.S.

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