Justice Department says Nebraskan committed mail fraud
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A former Nebraska Department Agriculture employee is accused of faking inspections aimed at detecting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
State officials say the alleged falsification isn't expected to increase the risk of public exposure to the illness, since other preventative measures have been in place.
According to a federal indictment, Galen Niehues was hired by the Nebraska Agriculture Department to conduct on-site inspections of cattle operations and collect samples of feed for testing.
The samples were supposed to be sent off for lab analysis to ensure the feed didn't contain animal tissue known to transmit BSE. The agency's inspection program was funded with a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Discrepancies in Niehues' reports alerted state and federal officials to a potential problem, prompting an investigation by the FDA, said Bobbie Kriz-Wickham, spokesperson for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
The investigation found that Niehues had submitted about 92 reports indicating he had completed on-site visits and collected feed samples, even though he hadn't actually conducted the inspections, the indictment said.
During the time he was employed by the agency between July 2009 and March 2010, Niehues earned more than $35,000 in salary and benefits, the indictment said.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Niehues committed mail fraud by using the postal service to send the fake reports, which could result in a 20-year prison sentence if he's convicted. The agency has also charged him with making false statements, which carries a potential sentence of up to five years.
Capital Press was unable to locate Niehues for comment, and court documents do yet not name an attorney representing him. Niehues was summoned to make his first court appearance on Dec. 2.
Dennis Hughes, Nebraska's state veterinarian, said the alleged false reports don't amount to a public health concern because feed plants are also subject to inspections, and it's evident they have followed safety protocols.
"We do inspect our feed to make sure there's no prohibited substances that cause BSE," Hughes said, noting that Nebraska has never been found to have a case of BSE-infected cattle.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture also completed inspections at cattle operations that Niehues is suspected of neglecting, said Kriz-Wickham. "We went back and fulfilled the contract with FDA to conduct the investigations that were necessary."