Despite a day of intensive questioning by the Senate Agriculture Committee, John R. Norton III appeared to be on his way yesterday to easy confirmation as deputy secretary of agriculture.
Norton, who has extensive grain, cotton and vegetable farming operations in Arizona and California, would succeed Richard E. Lyng as the department's No. 2 official.
In the only surprise of the day, Norton disclosed that his family farming corporation and two others in which he has an interest collected more than $2.5 million in payment-in-kind (PIK) commodities in the 1983 federal surplus reduction program.
Earlier reports had put Norton's PIK payments at less than that and a USDA inspector general's report, which drew criticism yesterday, found that he had received $1.5 million of cotton and wheat in return for not planting.
"I offer no apologies to anyone for participating in the PIK program," Norton said. "Had I not participated, members of this committee might well be questioning my management ability."
Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.) questioned Norton at length about his role in an Agriculture Department decision on the cotton portion of PIK that may have benefitted Calcot Ltd., a farm cooperative of which Norton is vice chairman and a director.
Norton said he had no role in the decision and that the co-op did not benefit in any way from alleged "insider" ties to the department. He also denied knowledge of charges that Calcot got a special break that allowed it to profit on a sale to the Soviet Union when other cotton supplies were frozen for use in the PIK program.
USDA officials said yesterday that conflict-of-interest questions about the role of Everett Rank, chief administrator of PIK, in allowing Calcot to sell its cotton, are under investigation by the Justice Department.
Norton expressed his general support for administration proposals to cut farm program costs and to reshape farm support programs. He also said that notwithstanding his own financial success, he could identify with and would work to help farmers undergoing severe economic stress