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Audit results draw ire of avocado growers

by Tim Linden | February 10, 2009
At two public meetings held during the last week of January, avocado growers vented their anger at the California Avocado Commission as a result of a recent audit that revealed questionable, perhaps fraudulent, use of commission funds. (See The Produce News, Jan. 19, 2009, page 1.)

The California Department of Food & Agriculture audit was released in mid- January, and the findings have been the subject of much scorn from both inside and outside the industry. The lavish spending that was detailed in the audit has been covered in numerous media reports and parodied on late- night talk shows.

The two regularly scheduled annual grower meetings were held during the week of Jan. 26 in Ventura and San Diego counties. It was widely reported that growers expressed outrage at those meetings, with some calling for the immediate ouster of all commissioners as well as a thorough vetting of the current staff.

Commission Chairman Rick Shade, who ran both grower meetings, told The Produce News that he did stand up and take responsibility for the misappropriation of funds that took place under his watch. He said that it is the responsibility of the commission to make sure the funds, which are collected from growers, are spent wisely. He also admitted that the commission did not have the correct procedures in place to prevent the misuse of those funds.

But he just as clearly laid the major portion of the blame where he believes it belongs.

Both to The Produce News and in the public meetings, Mr. Shade said that the inappropriate spending was the work of former commission President Mark Affleck, who resigned last May as the commission began to take a closer look at the books.

Responding directly to the suggestion by growers that a cleaning of the house is in order, Mr. Shade said that growers will have the opportunity to vote individual commissioners off the board during the elections in the fall, and they can do so if they choose. But regarding the staff, he said, "I have complete confidence in our staff. No one will be going to the guillotine."

Mr. Shade said that the staff was unaware of the activities of the former president and were not involved in his financial dealings. He said that new procedures have been in place since May with regard to the expenditures, and he believes that those procedures are working.

"Growers want us to make changes, and we already have," he said. While Mr. Shade takes responsibility, he believes the wrath of some growers has gone beyond reasonable. "There have been some threats of violence," he stated.

And commenting on the volunteer, unpaid nature of his role at the commission, he quipped that his volunteer days are numbered. "If the local Little League is looking for help, they shouldn't look toward me."

Two members of the staff, who both asked not to be identified, separately told this reporter that the idea that there was a culture of lavish spending among the commission staff is not true.

"I was amazed when I read [in the audit report] how some expenses were approved and paid," said one employee. "That isn't how it worked for me. I couldn't get a gas receipt reimbursed without detailed backup."

Mr. Shade said that the California Avocado Commission will hold its annual strategy meeting in April, at which time it will discuss the future role of the commission and how it should move forward. He said that the marketing campaign for the 2009 season, which is just getting underway, would see a continuation of the "hand-grown" theme that was launched last year.

The commission's promotional materials tell the story of individual growers in an effort to have consumers connect with farmers. When it was launched last year, the theme was touted as a way to capitalize on the locally grown trend.