How Biden’s Agriculture Secretary Cashed In During The Trump Years
Tom Vilsack went straight from Obama’s cabinet to a big-money position at a trade organization. Then he won the lottery (literally).
Tom Vilsack has spent more time as a cabinet official than anyone else over the last 12 years, serving as secretary of agriculture under both Obama and Biden. But during the four-year period that he was out of government, when Trump was in charge, Vilsack cashed in—leading a trade organization that called on his old department, taking advantage of farm subsidies and winning the lottery of a state he once governed. Today, Vilsack is worth an estimated $4 million.
It’s a lot of money for a guy born in a Pittsburgh orphanage in 1950. Vilsack attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he met his future wife, Christie. After he got his law degree, they moved to her hometown, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Vilsack started practicing law. In one strange case, a client paid his attorney fee by handing Vilsack a farm. A spokesperson for the secretary says it was valued in 1992 at $192,000—a small fraction of what the property would ultimately be worth.
The majority of Tom Vilsack’s $4 million net worth comes from his farm, giving him personal insight into the ag industry—and potential conflicts of interest as the head of the USDA.
During this same era, Vilsack’s political career began to take off. He became mayor of Mount Pleasant in 1987, a state senator in 1993, then governor in 1999. In 2006, Vilsack launched a bid for the White House. His presidential run failed, but the eventual winner—Barack Obama—gave him a spot in the cabinet, where he remained for eight years.
While serving as agriculture secretary, Vilsack retained ownership of his farm, with approval from ethics officials. “Tom Vilsack was one of those guys that pretty much said to me—I may be paraphrasing but not by much—‘Just tell me what I need to do, and I’m happy to do it,’” said Don Fox, who dealt with Vilsack as general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics at the time. “He was always very cooperative in terms of his ethics agreement and anything else we asked him to do.” The farm, which an outside operator has leased for years, continued to appreciate in value over time.
When Obama’s second term ended, other lucrative opportunities opened up. In February 2017, Vilsack joined an organization that the agriculture department helps fund, called the U.S. Dairy Export Council. As its chief executive and president, Vilsack promoted dairy products overseas. He also communicated with the Department of Agriculture, reaching out to his successor Sonny Perdue. The work paid well, as revolving-door positions often do. During the four years Vilsack led the organization, he earned an estimated $3.6 million.
Vilsack bolstered those earnings with additional gigs. In July 2017, he started serving as an advisor to the chancellor at Colorado State University, a role that paid an estimated $75,000 a year. In 2018, Vilsack became a court-appointed monitor of opioid producer Purdue Pharma, earning another $145,000 or so. In 2019, as the presidential campaign was ramping up, he started working as a political consultant at a Des Moines firm, hauling in more than $90,000. In January 2020, the former Iowa governor won his state’s lottery, collecting an additional $150,000.
Vilsack also used his farm to take advantage of programs from the Department of Agriculture. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to refrain from planting and harvesting on sensitive land. In 2020, Vilsack collected about $15,000 of subsidies through the program. He still owns the farm today, causing some ethics complications. In February, a White House lawyer granted Vilsack a waiver, partially exempting him from conflict-of-interest rules and permitting Vilsack to both serve in government and keep receiving payments. “This is the type of thing I think a waiver’s designed for,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration. “That’s the size of farm that I’d say is more typical of a family farm, and you want the guy to be able to be secretary of agriculture.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore his overlapping interests. Two months after joining Biden’s cabinet, Vilsack, whose salary is now about $200,000 a year, announced that the USDA was expanding the Conservation Reserve Program by raising the rates it pays to farmers. “We want to make sure [the Conservation Reserve Program] continues to be a valuable and effective conservation resource for our producers for decades to come,” he said in a statement, which did not highlight his own financial interest in the program. When asked about the optics of all this, a spokesperson for Vilsack said the agriculture secretary complied with the law and takes ethics seriously.
Hanging onto the farm for all these years has certainly proven to be a wise financial decision for Vilsack. Today, he and his wife own a handful of assets—a house in Iowa worth about $630,000, three government pensions collectively valued at $500,000 and some interests in funds. But their most valuable investment, by far, is the farm that Vilsack received as an attorney fee decades ago. It’s now worth an estimated $2.1 million.