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Patrick Springer, Published March 06 2013

Schafer portrait among many that draw criticism

FARGO – A portrait of Ed Schafer hung last April in a gallery in the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington is giving some critics sticker shock.

The oil painting depicts Schafer as secretary of agriculture posing beside a United States flag, with a painting of Theodore Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands in the background.

The painting was commissioned at a cost of $30,500 and recently was noted among the portraits of other Cabinet members as examples of questionable spending of tax dollars.

The flap was reported earlier this week by ABC News, including a blog post headlined “Taxpayer Dollars Spent on Official Government Portraits,” illustrated with a photograph of Ed and Nancy Schafer at the portrait’s unveiling.

Taxpayer watchdogs including Taxpayers for Common Sense have spoken out against the practice, common with U.S. agencies and the military.

The Environmental Protection Agency spent almost $40,000 on a portrait of Administrator Lisa Jackson, and a painting of Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donly cost $41,200, according to examples cited by The Washington Times.

Schafer, reached Tuesday for comment, said he at first questioned the need for the portrait, which was handled by a committee, but bowed to a tradition that dates back to the first secretary of agriculture, named in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln.

Still, Schafer, also a former North Dakota governor, said he understands critics who are concerned about the use of taxpayer funds to pay for official portraits in Washington.

“They are way too expensive in my opinion,” said Schafer, a Republican. “I was like, ‘Can’t we get a cheaper artist? Could we get somebody who’s up and coming?’ ”

Schafer said he was told a private foundation pays for the portraits of agriculture secretaries but said he was not able to confirm that.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not return a message from The Forum seeking clarification.

Photographic portraits are the tradition for North Dakota governors, Schafer said.

On the other hand, the North Dakota Rough Rider award, an honor bestowed by the governor, features a gallery of painted portraits, which hang in a hallway in the Capitol.

The last Rough Rider portrait was done in September 2011 to depict recipient Ron Offutt, a Fargo businessman, at a cost of $2,500 that doesn’t include the framing expenses, according to Jody Link, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office.

Schafer’s U.S. secretary of agriculture portrait was painted by Brett James Smith, based in the Baton Rouge, La., area.

Smith had painted “Valley of the Elkhorn,” which depicts Theodore Roosevelt, standing with a horse, viewing a Badlands vista. Schafer is a fan of that painting, and selected Smith as his portraitist, with the approval of the committee.

“It wouldn’t be my priority,” Schafer said of the practice of painted portraits of Cabinet secretaries. “But it’s been the history and tradition of our country.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522