The U.S. Department of Agriculture has enforcement teeth.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG), Investigations, the USDA’s law enforcement branch, is authorized to conduct search and seizure operations; apprehend suspects; investigate fraud, animal abuse and agro-terrorism; and investigate nutrition program fraud, among other duties.

Mary Lewis, special agent in charge, USDA-OIG, Southwest Region, in Temple, Texas, says the Inspector General Act of 1978 and the Ag Food Act of 1981 gave the OIG the “authority and responsibility” to act as the USDA enforcement arm and to make arrests. The office in Temple covers nine Southwestern states.

Agents are armed.

Lewis, speaking at a recent USDA Office of Dispute Resolution training session in Salado, said agents investigate cases that involve USDA funds, including suspected food stamp fraud.

She has seen people attempt to sell their food stamp benefits on the Internet or use Food Stamp cards inappropriately for ineligible items such as cash, alcohol, gasoline, and gambling.

Most of the people who receive government benefits, she said, are qualified and eligible. “A few mess it up for others.”

She said agents investigate fraud, waste, abuse, criminal activity, and ineligible use of USDA funds. Some cases have included confiscating high-value cars from people fraudulently receiving food stamps and other USDA benefits, Lewis said. “We look into misuse of loan and grant funds and improper and false claims,” Lewis said. “We are privy to USDA records.” While the great majority of farm program recipients are eligible and participate appropriately, we may see some disaster payment fraud because of the 2012 drought,” she added. Agents also investigate suspected criminal activity committed by or against USDA employees.

Fraud cases have a five year statute of limitations. Making false statements on a loan application has a 10-year statute of limitations.

“We sometimes work with the FBI and the Secret Service—as well as local law enforcement—as needed,” Lewis said. OIG assists local law enforcement locate fugitive felons by utilizing information maintained by USDA.

Nationally, OIG-Investigations had 793 indictments, 538 convictions, and $106.3 million monetary results in fiscal year 2012. She said priorities of the office include safety and security, including food security; integrity, investigating embezzlement and bribery; improving management, improving systems and procedures; protecting natural resources; and improving workforce efficiency.

She said criminal statutes such as animal fighting, depicting animal cruelty for sale, money laundering and conspiracy also come under the office’s purview.

USDA OIG’s cases are varied as there are approximately 300 programs under USDA they are responsible for policing. Violations that are common are aiding and abetting, food stamp trafficking and theft of government funds. They also look into misrepresentation of organic food production. Lewis said OIG investigated the Michael Vick dog fighting case. Many of the animal fighting cases also involve the sale or receipt of stolen goods.

“We have an emergency response program to help secure agriculture infrastructure and prevent attacks on American agriculture production.”

Working to prevent agro-terrorism, as with intentionally exposing livestock to diseases such as foot and mouth disease, is part of the program.

“And we make recommendations to USDA to promote efficiency in programs and operations,” Lewis said.