Real Talk w/CJ: Mary Lewis, Office of Inspector General USDA

Realt Talk with CJ logo

Tue., Oct. 4, 2011
2-3 P.M.
CJava Cafe

Special Agent Mary Lewis of the USDA Office of Inspector General

On any given day, SHSU Criminal Justice Alumnus Mary (Coulter) Lewis may be investigating dog and cock fighting rings, tracking down fraud in the food stamp program, examining illegal activities in government farm loans, or checking out issues in food safety.

For 23 years, Lewis has worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Office of Inspector General. Her job is to weed out fraud in about 300 government programs in the federal system.

"There is never a dull moment,” said Lewis, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Temple TX office, which covers New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Lewis supervises agents in Central and South Texas and Arkansas. “We are a big lending type agency, with 300 programs. We can have fraud in any one of them…fraud is fraud. You don’t have to know a lot about agricultural programs. It’s never the same every day.”

Lewis, a 1988 criminal justice graduate, will discuss the Department and other federal job opportunities as part of Real Talk w/CJ on Oct. 4 at 2 p.m. in the CJava Café in the Criminal Justice Center.

The Office of Inspector General is the law enforcement arm of the USDA, which covers a diverse array of programs in the federal government, including food stamps, federal farm aid, animal fighting, animal and plant protection, food safety, agricultural research, the forest service and natural resources conservation, to name a few.

The office also investigates wrongdoing by department employees for such offenses as bribery, public corruption and child pornography.

"We are not only investigating farmers and participants in our program, we investigate our employees," Lewis said. "We are like Internal Affairs."

Lewis found out about the USDA as a student at SHSU.

"There are all kinds of opportunities," Lewis said. “If it had not been for my advisor at SHSU, I wouldn’t have known about the job at all. Once you get your foot in the door, you can work at one agency for a while and then get into another agency that may interest you more. It’s a good way to get into the federal system."

Despite dreams of working for the FBI, Lewis stayed in the Department of Agriculture because of the diverse array of work as well as the opportunity to collaborate with other federal agencies on cases. Food stamp fraud, where shop owners purchase government benefits for cash to make a profit, has been linked to terrorist groups oversees. Animal fighting often includes not only gambling and animal cruelty, but also drug deals, illegal weapons and stolen property.

Loan schemes can lead to major fraud, costing the government – and taxpayers -- millions of dollars. In one Houston case, an export program which guarantees payments for grains or other products through bank loans racked up $102 million in fraudulent payments before it was halted. In another farm fraud case, a program participant sold his collateral for a loan – cattle – to buy an engagement ring, a cruise, and new car as well as to make payments on his sun tanning business.

"In these hard economic times, instead of coming in and saying they have a problem, they are selling their collateral," Lewis said. "We are working more of these cases to make an impact on the community."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also vital to the health and safety of food and agriculture in this country. Lewis once supervised a case of a chicken processing plant worker who was in such a hurry to go four-wheeling that he put ink in the chillers with raw chicken rather than take leave. The ink adulterated the food, which caused the plant to be shut down and the meat to be destroyed, costing the business $100,000.

Another time, her office caught several USDA border inspectors in Laredo, TX, who were responsible for ensuring vegetables and flowers were fumigated to destroy incoming pests from Mexico. Not only did the agricultural workers falsify their overtime records on their inspections, the fumigation process was never done, opening up the U.S. to potentially harmful bugs.

“There is one beetle that can wipe out an entire forest,” Lewis said.

As the Special Agent in Charge in Temple, Lewis supervises six agents, two in Arkansas and four in Texas. In the past, she also has served on the USDA’s Emergency Response Team.

Lewis urges students to look at all federal agencies, not just the popular ones.

“I want to let them know about all the opportunities available in the federal system,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to wait for the big agencies. I have the same authority as the other branches, but I work cases in the USDA.”

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