Resumes Show Under-qualified political loyalists and lobbyists got top jobs at USDA

Records obtained by American Oversight reveal a pattern of politically-motivated hiring at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A list of political appointees who have joined USDA since March 2017, along with appointees’ resumes, show that unqualified candidates, particularly former campaign staffers who expressed loyalty to President Trump, obtained leadership positions at the agency. Other resumes show officials who, while possessing experience in agricultural policy, came to USDA directly from the industries that the agency regulates. 

Under-qualified campaign staffers leading RHS and FSA offices

According to the records we obtained, underqualified candidates—many of them former campaign staffers—were put in charge of state-wide offices of the Rural Housing Service (RHS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) in at least five states. RHS is tasked with helping build housing and community facilities in rural areas. FSA manages farm credit, disaster, and loan programs. Many of the people tasked with running RHS and FSA offices, though, appear to possess almost none of the subject matter expertise or management experience ostensibly necessary to do their jobs.

  • Dennis Beavers: now the head of Tennessee’s FSA office, Beavers was previously the state director for Trump’s presidential campaign in Alabama during the primary and general elections. While Beavers has extensive Alabama politics experience—including serving as state political director for a political action committee’s campaign for Roy Moore for Governor in 2009—he has no agricultural or government background.
  • Chris Beeker: formerly a loan officer and management consultant, Beeker is currently director of Alabama’s RHS office. Prior to his appointment to USDA, Beeker also served as a delegate for Trump.
  • Beth Walker Green: before serving as director of Virginia’s RHS office, Green was deputy director for Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia. Political campaigns represent the entirety of Green’s previous experience.
  • James Sherman: now director of Arizona’s RHS office, Sherman previously worked in sales for a biotechnology company and was a principal at an “executive protection” company.
  • Gigi Jones: perhaps the most unqualified of the USDA appointees whose resumes we obtained, Jones now services as head of Hawaii’s RHS office. Prior to her position at USDA, Jones was state director of Trump’s campaign in Hawaii, manager of a dental office, and founder of “Cool Our Keiki” page on Facebook.
Pledges of loyalty to Trump

In addition to working on Trump’s campaign, some USDA political appointees made explicit avowals of their support for the president on their resumes.

  • Clare Carlson: North Dakota’s director of rural development listed under “political activity” that he was an “early supporter of President Trump. Stood with him at Bismarck event in 2016.”
  • Brian Dansel: Washington state’s FSA director, in listing “awards & recognition,” noted he received a Trump/Pence 2016 Campaign Plaque of Appreciation.
  • Kim Dolbow Vann: California’s director of rural development, in the “political experience” section of her resume, noted that she “humbly lead [sic] the pledge for President Trump during his Rally June 1, 2016 at the Sacramento Internal [sic] Airport.”
Former lobbyists

The records we obtained show that while some political appointees at USDA do have experience in agricultural policy, many of their appointments also appear to have political overtones. Former lobbyists for the industries USDA regulates—including corn, soybean, and wheat interest groups—comprise a large portion of USDA’s political appointees.

  • Brooke Appleton: now chief of staff to USDA’s deputy secretary, Appleton formerly worked as director of public policy and political strategy at the National Corn Growers Association, and before that as director of government affairs at the National Association of Wheat Growers.
  • Aubrey Bettencourt: prior to joining USDA as California’s FSA director, Bettencourt was the executive director of the California Water Alliance, an agricultural industry group.
  • Dudley Hoskins: before serving as chief of staff to USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, Hoskins worked as public policy counsel at National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, manager of regulatory policy at CropLife America-RISE, and director of health and regulatory affairs at the American Horse Council.
  • Maggie Lyons: now chief of staff and senior advisor to the undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, Lyons formerly worked as senior government relations director for the National Grocers Association.
  • David Schemm: prior to serving as FSA state director in Kansas, Schemm was president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
  • Stephen Censky: now deputy secretary at USDA, Censky previously worked as CEO of the American Soybean Association.
  • Kailee Tkacz: prior to joining USDA as policy advisor for food, nutrition, and consumer services, Tkacz worked as a lobbyist at numerous industry groups. Tkacz was director of food policy at the Corn Refiners Association, director of government affairs at the Snack Food Association, and manager of government affairs at the National Grocers Association.
Perdue staffers

Some USDA appointees whose resumes we obtained have an especially close political connection to the agency: they worked in state government positions under Secretary Sonny Perdue in his former position as governor of Georgia.

  • Donald Cole: now a speechwriter at USDA, Cole was appointed by Perdue as a state representative on the Georgia Board of Human Resources and as chairman of the Georgia Board of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities.
  • Jannine Miller: prior to joining USDA as senior advisor for rural infrastructure, Miller was director of the Center of Innovation for Logistics in Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.
  • Joyce White: now Georgia’s director of rural development at USDA, White formerly worked as chief of staff at Georgia’s Department of Agriculture, and then as state director for Secretary Perdue’s brother U.S. Senator David Perdue.

One other USDA appointee, whose name was withheld, previously worked as a division director of government planning and policy advisor of criminal justice in Georgia’s Office of the Governor.

As the records we obtained show, the administration has emphasized political connections and allegiance over policy expertise in hiring at USDA. Political appointees’ lack of experience, as detailed in the resumes we got, echoes hiring patterns revealed in a set of USDA resumes American Oversight uncovered last year. Based on the extensive collection of personnel records we’ve obtained, it’s clear that the administration sees staffing at USDA as a tool to reward political loyalists and industry lobbyists—not as a mechanism to ensure sound agricultural policy in the best interests of farmers and consumers.

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