Union of Concerned Scientists, American Oversight Sue for Records Related to USDA Relocation

Lawsuit Seeks Documents That May Shed Light on Undue Influence Shaping Choice to Move to Kansas City

Published May 13, 2020

WASHINGTON (May 13, 2020)--The Union of Concerned Scientists and American Oversight sued the Trump administration today for failing to release records related to the controversial decision to relocate two research agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to Kansas City. The lawsuit seeks to enforce a suite of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and American Oversight in March seeking records from the USDA and General Services Administration for documents that may shed light on why Kansas City was chosen as the relocation site, and what if any undue influence shaped the decision. A link to the lawsuit is available here.

In June 2019, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would move from Washington, DC to Kansas City, MO, disrupting the lives of scores of federal workers. The relocation has resulted in a brain drain at each agency, with over two-thirds of employees deciding to leave their jobs rather than move.

“The chaotic way in which Secretary Perdue carried out this relocation has raised many concerns, and the USDA has still largely refused to address them," said Rebecca Boehm, economist in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. "With this lawsuit, we’re seeking documents that will tell us why Perdue decided to abruptly move scientists, which led hundreds of them to quit and greatly weakened the USDA’s ability to lead through evidence-based policymaking. The information we seek will also help the public understand why Kansas City was selected and whether anyone other than U.S. taxpayers benefited financially from these decisions.”

The new building selected for the USDA offices in Kansas City, located at 805 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City MO, is co-owned by a business belonging to Michael Merriman. Merriman is a prominent Republican donor in Kansas and Missouri, raising questions about whether his political ties influenced relocation decisions. Today's lawsuit seeks the release of records about the selection of Kansas City and 805 Pennsylvania Avenue, including records of visits to Kansas City and other prospective sites to scout locations, and final decision memos regarding the relocation.

"This administration has demonstrated its hostility to science and science-based policy at almost every opportunity," said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. "Now they're trying to convince us that relocating two science-based agencies to a building in Kansas owned by a political donor is solely about cutting costs. If the USDA wanted to prove that the search for a new location was conducted properly, they could simply release the documents we requested. Instead, we have to sue for information the public has a right to."

American Oversight and UCS have already obtained more than 100 pages of records concerning the USDA office relocation in response to separate FOIA requests filed in 2019. Those documents include:

  • Records from USDA of communications between the USDA and Kansas state officials regarding the relocation can be found here.
  • Records from the USDA shared between the USDA and Missouri State officials regarding the relocation of research components to Kansas City can be found here.