BACKGROUND: The federal crop insurance program was created during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as a way to keep farmers from going bankrupt because of a bad growing season. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays about 15 private insurers to sell and manage the policies, but taxpayers are on the hook for most of the losses. Payouts for 2012 have topped $15.6 billion — a figure that is still growing as new claims are filed.
WIDE NET: Forty-one defendants have either pleaded guilty or reached plea agreements after profiting from false insurance claims for losses of tobacco, soybeans, wheat and corn. Authorities say the ongoing investigation is already the largest such ring uncovered in the country.