Crop Fraud Crime Files

The Warrens used pictures like this, of ice-covered tomato fields, as part of their scheme.

Scene of the Crime: The Warrens used pictures like this, of ice-covered tomato fields, as part of their scheme to defraud the government out of millions of dollars. Courtesy USDA hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy USDA
But infrared satellite imagery showed Mints had never planted a cotton crop where he claimed. i

Texas farmer Wendell Mints collected more than $500,000 from the federal government for bogus claims on cotton and grain sorghum crops. Satellite imagery showed that Mints was not growing anything in some fields where he claimed to have a crop. Courtesy USDA hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy USDA
But infrared satellite imagery showed Mints had never planted a cotton crop where he claimed.

Texas farmer Wendell Mints collected more than $500,000 from the federal government for bogus claims on cotton and grain sorghum crops. Satellite imagery showed that Mints was not growing anything in some fields where he claimed to have a crop.

Courtesy USDA

In the 1990s, Congress privatized the federal crop insurance program. The federal treasury still guaranteed the riskiest policies, but the government turned the selling and servicing of policies over to private insurance companies.

Fraud on the Farm Series

NPR's John Burnett looks at why farm fraud is growing in size and complexity, and why some insurance companies look the other way.

The program exploded in size, with the value of insured crops jumping from $10 billion to $40 billion as dozens of new specialty crops became eligible, from blueberries to sunflowers to lemon grass.

Fraud has also increased in the program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says bogus claims by farmers cheated the U.S. Treasury and insurance companies out of $160 million last year. A look at two cases successfully prosecuted:

The North Carolina/Tennessee Tomato Caper

Insurance Claim: From 1997 to 2003, Robert and Viki Warren filed dozens of insurance claims involving lost crops.

Insurance Payout: $9,280,000, most of it from the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.

Modus Operandi: The Warrens sat around the kitchen table and invented a mountain of agricultural information: false planting dates, false farming history, overstated acreage, fake shipping manifests, yield records were shifted between fields, production was hidden, front producers were hired, and a hailstorm was faked.

How Caught: One of the initial tips came from anomalies during a computer analysis of U.S. farm insurance claims. Federal investigators then served a search warrant and discovered in the Warrens' basement nearly 200,000 bogus documents and three copy machines used to create them.

Outcome: Robert Warren, 76 months; Viki Warren, 66 months; restitution pending. Federal investigators consider the Warren case to be the largest and most sophisticated case of crop insurance fraud that they had ever encountered, and the penalties issued were the most severe that any farmer has received for this crime.

The Wilbarger County, Texas, Cotton Scam

Insurance Claim: In the late 1990s, Farmer Wendell Mints claimed he had losses on thousands of acres of cotton and grain sorghum

Insurance Payout: $500,000, primarily from the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.

Modus Operandi: Mints prepared false crop insurance loss documents and backed them up with false receipts from a seed dealer.

How Caught: Satellite imagery analysis proved that certain fields Mints claimed he planted with cotton and grain sorghum had not been planted at all, or were used for cattle pastures.

Outcome: 41 months in the federal penitentiary.

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