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Child Nutrition Contracts Violated Laws, Ethics Rules, GAO Reports

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Washington

The General Accounting Office blasted Undersecretary of Agriculture Ellen W. Haas in a recent report, charging her with mismanaging government contracts designed to promote healthy eating habits among schoolchildren.

The GAO report charges that Ms. Haas, the head of the Department of Agriculture's food, nutrition, and consumer-services division, violated federal procurement laws and ethics rules in the Team Nutrition program.

The $10 million effort is designed to promote good nutrition through multimedia campaigns and technical-assistance grants to school food-service workers.

Ms. Haas' office improperly offered contracts to Democratic pollsters to assess public opinion of Republican-backed welfare-reform proposals, GAO officials charged in presenting the report at a Sept. 18 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Operations, Nutrition, and Foreign Agriculture.

The report also says that she violated ethics standards by allowing a friend to be awarded a $25,000 contract to write a children's book on the importance of good nutrition. In addition, it calls Ms. Haas' office careless for allowing a $175,000 contract evaluating the effectiveness of the Team Nutrition program to swell to $2.3 million.

The stinging report by the congressional watchdog agency prompted two prominent Republican lawmakers to call last month for the undersecretary's resignation.

In a Sept. 19 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., wrote that Ms. Haas' actions "have seriously jeopardized the Team Nutrition project and its goals."

The undersecretary, the letter continued, "can no longer be effective in the performance of her duties."

But Alicia Bambara, a spokeswoman for Ms. Haas, said last week that the lawmakers' letter was nothing more than a "political hatchet job."

'Mistakes Were Made'

"It's an agenda-driven attack on an administration undersecretary who puts children and families first," Ms. Bambara said.

In addition, Ms. Bambara said, many of the criticisms the GAO report identified have already been corrected.

Ms. Haas has acknowledged that "mistakes were made," Ms. Bambara said, adding that the office has already begun to take actions to improve oversight of contracting procedures. The undersecretary has no plans to resign, she said.

Ms. Haas, a longtime activist on children's nutrition issues, worked at Public Voice for Food and Health Policy before joining the USDA in 1993

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