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WHEN USDA DOLES OUT TOO MUCH, FARMERS OFTEN GET TO KEEP CHANGE

Imagine receiving cash benefits from the federal government. A bureaucrat later discovers you've been given too much money.

Are you forced to repay Uncle Sam?Well, if you're a farmer, you may have hit the jackpot: There's an excellent chance you can spend that bonus any way you wish.

Since November 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid at least $2.1 million to farmers in 40 states who didn't deserve the money, according to a report by the USDA inspector general's office. The law that governs farm programs says the money belongs to the grower unless errors are found within 90 days.

USDA auditors who counted the losses are recommending that Congress drop the rule when it rewrites the farm law this year. They talked to people who cut the checks at state and county field offices.

"Their comments can be summarized as follows," auditors said in the report. "The rule is absurd, USDA is the only department that has this provision, and 90-day rule provisions are contrary to normal business practices."

From Nov. 28, 1990, though January 1994, the average overpayment in 4,288 cases was $371, the inspector general's office said.

The mistakes often are made by USDA field employees who process a variety of claims.

For example, in a Texas case, a keystroke error led to a $1,332 check for a sugar-cane grower who was entitled to only $34 after a disaster in 1990.

In Illinois, a wheat grower in Vermilion County received $449 after his crop withered in bad weather. A year later, in October 1993, officials discovered that his farm was placed in the wrong computer file and he was actually entitled to only $243.

He was allowed to keep the $206 difference.