The next time you dig into a juicy rib eye steak or order Eggs Benedict at brunch, you can thank Phyllis Fong that your food is safe to eat.
As inspector general of the United States Department of Agriculture for more than a decade, Fong is responsible for protecting food consumers. “The USDA oversees programs that affect every American several times a day,” she said. “Our mission is to ensure that farm and nutrition programs run efficiently and effectively, without fraud or waste.”
With a budget of $90 million, Fong heads a staff of 600 that monitors a range of programs ranging from agricultural trade and research to poultry, beef and egg inspections along with food stamps and the national forest system. She also serves as the first chair of the 73-member Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Their task of working to promote economy and effectiveness in their programs has been made more difficult, she says, because of budget cuts mandated by the sequester. “We anticipate the next fiscal year will be even more challenging while we try to do more and more with less and less,” she said.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised in Hawaii, Fong earned a B.A. degree in Asian studies from Pomona College. She was drawn to Vanderbilt Law School because of its strength in international law and has fond memories of courses taught by Jonathan Charney, a nationally renowned international law scholar who was the Lee S. and Charles A. Speir Professor of Law until his death in 2002, and of a civil rights course taught by the late Professor Robert Belton.
She and future husband, Massachusetts native Paul Tellier ’78, met while working on the staff of the Journal of Transnational Law. After graduation, the couple moved to Washington. “Back then, it was one of the few cities large enough for a two-lawyer couple to have careers in the same city,” Tellier said.
He joined the Interstate Commerce Commission, while Fong found a position as a staff attorney for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which suited her interests in immigration and international law. Her work there led her to choose a career in public service. “I wanted to be involved in issues that affect the American people at a policy level,” she said.
Fong spent five years at the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that provides civil legal aid to low-income Americans, before joining the U.S. Small Business Administration in 1988. There, her formidable managerial and organizational skills resulted in a rapid rise to positions of increasing responsibility. She was appointed inspector general of the SBA by President Clinton in 1999. In 2002 Fong was tapped by President George W. Bush to become inspector general of the USDA and continues to serve under President Obama.
Tellier’s work at the ICC focused on economic deregulation of the motor carrier industry and the railroads. After he earned an LL.M. in tax law from Georgetown, he moved to the IRS Office of the Chief Counsel, where his work focused on interpretations of the tax code provisions governing charitable contributions and changes in accounting methods. He retired in spring 2013.