COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Animal protection groups are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to block the revival of domestic horse slaughter at commercial processing plants.
The Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue of Larkspur, Colo., three other groups and five individuals filed a federal lawsuit Monday seeking an emergency injunction to overturn the USDA’s recent permit approval for a horse meat plant in Roswell, N.M.
Four of the named plaintiffs are Roswell residents; the fifth lives in Gallatin, Mo., where a Rains Natural Meats equine slaughterhouse could next receive federal approval.
On Tuesday, the federal agency approved a horse slaughter plant in Sigourney, Iowa, and expects to endorse another request later this week. The Humane Society’s lawsuit named prospective processing plants in Gallatin and Rockville, Mo.; Woodbury, Tenn.; and Washington, Okla.
(Note: A 2012 bill by Rep. Andy Holt, D-Dresden, would have erected legal hurdles for any lawsuits against establishing horse slaughterhouses and included a declaration that “the General Assembly intends to encourage the location of equine slaughter and processing facilities in Tennessee that meet all sanitary, safety and humane slaughter requirements.” The measure made it to the House floor, but was never put to a floor vote.)
Horse slaughterhouses last operated in the U.S. in 2007 before Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for plant inspections. Federal lawmakers restored those cuts in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program. In a written statement Tuesday, the agency said it was legally required to approve Responsible Transportation’s plant in southeast Iowa.
News release from state comptroller’s office:
An employee of the Morristown-Hamblen Humane Society altered receipts to conceal the theft of $51,130 from the organization’s adoption fees and other funds, an audit by the Comptroller’s Division of Investigation has revealed.
Receipts in the humane society’s computer system were backdated – up to 11 years before the installation of the computer system – so they would not be included in daily collection reports. That meant money from adoption fees and other sources didn’t appear in the organization’s records. Investigators concluded that money was stolen by the employee, who was later fired.
Investigative auditors reviewed records from July 1, 2009 through October 31, 2011 after Hamblen County officials discovered the altered receipts from collections were not deposited into the humane society’s bank accounts. The stolen funds should have been used to operate the animal shelter, enforce animal control ordinances and conduct animal cruelty investigations.
The employee involved had been responsible for gathering collections, matching collections with receipts and delivering those collections to the bookkeeper for deposit. During questioning by investigators, the employee admitted to backdating one receipt to “borrow” $120. The employee refused to speak with investigators after being fired.
Investigators also found weaknesses in the humane society’s accounting and record-keeping procedures, which made the theft easier to conceal.
“It is very important that there is an appropriate amount of oversight when public funds are being accepted, recorded and spent or deposited,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said. “Putting too many responsibilities in the hands of one individual without that kind of oversight can create situations that are ripe for fraud or abuse. It is very unfortunate in this case that money that could have been used to help stray and abused animals in Hamblen County isn’t available for that purpose because of this.”
The Comptroller’s Division of Investigation has forwarded copies of its report and supporting information to the Office of the District Attorney, Third Judicial District.
To view the report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/ia/
Here’s a collection of statements to media from various groups on Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of a bill requiring anyone making a photo or video of livestock abuse to turn it over to law enforcement authorities within 24 hours. News release from Humane Society of the United States:
(May 13, 2013) NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill, SB 1248/HB 1191, after hearing from thousands of Tennesseans urging the veto and a report deeming the bill constitutionally suspect by the Tennessee Attorney General.
Animal protection groups, First Amendment advocates and newspaper editorial boards across Tennessee opposed the bill, which would criminalize undercover investigations at agribusiness operations and stables. More than 300 Tennessee clergy also spoke out against the bill, as did several Tennessee celebrities, including Priscilla Presley, singers Carrie Underwood and Emmylou Harris, and Miss Tennessee USA 2013. The bill also received national criticism from talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who invited Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, on her show to discuss the issue.
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, said: “We thank Gov. Haslam for listening to his constituents and honoring the Constitution by vetoing this recklessly irresponsible legislation that would criminalize the important work of cruelty whistleblowers. By vetoing this bill, the governor is supporting transparency in horse stables and our food system.”
News release from Humane Society of the United States:
(May 9, 2013)– In contrast to the two foreign substance violations reported by the Tennessee walking horse industry at the 2012 National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s testing revealed that 145 horses out of 190 tested, or 76 percent, were found positive.
The Humane Society of the United States has requested that Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Jr. open an investigation into the veracity of public statements made by officials connected to the Walking Horse Trainers Association Enforcement Initiative, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization about their initiative to detect unlawful horse soring at the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
(Note: A spokeswoman for Cooper said the letter has been received and is under review by the attorney general’s office.)
The HSUS maintains that this discrepancy raises a serious concern that participants and spectators at the Celebration were falsely assured that horses entered were compliant with the federal Horse Protection Act, when evidence of cruelty and cheating may have been concealed by the organizers of the event. The foreign substance testing is used to detect the presence of painful caustic chemicals that trainers apply to horses’ legs. Other cruel training methods – collectively referred to as “soring” – are used to obtain the prized high-stepping gait of the walking horse.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s been learning from both sides about a so-called “ag gag bill” since it was passed by the Legislature two weeks ago, but it hasn’t reached his desk yet and he hasn’t decided whether or not a veto is in order.
The bill has generated thousands of emails, telephone calls and letters to the governor’s office – more than on any legislation that has come up during Haslam’s term as governor – and most have been calling for a veto, a gubernatorial spokesman says.
The Humane Society of the United States has organized a campaign against the bill, including TV ads urging people to contact Haslam and urge a veto. Celebrities including TV host Ellen DeGeneres and country music singer Carrie Underwood have also pushed a veto.
Haslam said he would not simply “tally results” before making his decision.
“Obviously, we value everyone’s opinion. But we’re trying to go beyond that and find the argument,” he said.
From the News Sentinel website:
Federal and local authorities seized 19 horses from a Blount County stable of a walking horse show trainer Thursday on suspicion that the animals have been subjected to the practice known as “soring.”
The trainer, Larry Joe Wheelon, 68, is charged with one felony count of animal cruelty, with additional charges pending, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
The seizure came a week after U.S. Department of Agriculture agents and Blount County authorities executed a search and seizure warrant at Wheelon’s barn on Tuckaleeche Pike in response to an anonymous tip.
Authorities returned Thursday to remove the 19 horses, which were visibly in pain, including several that were barely able to stand.
Investigators suspect the horses’ injuries were caused by soring — the application of caustic chemicals and painful devices to their hooves and legs used to produce the artificial, high-stepping “Big Lick” gait.
“It’s a significant number of horses to get to safety,” said Leighann McCollum, Tennessee director for HSUS. “Horses that will never have to endure that again — hopefully.”
The Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to All Animals and Horse Haven of Tennessee assisted in removing the horses to an undisclosed location, McCollum said. The Blount County Sheriff’s Office also provided security during the seizure.
Wheelon is an active director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and sits on its ethics committee, according to the Humane Society. Since 1993, he has been cited by inspectors 15 times for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. Wheelon was booked into the Blount County Justice Center Thursday in lieu of $5,000 bond.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam’s office had counted 4,502 emails and 1,796 phone calls – almost all of them against the so-called “ag gag” bill, reports WPLN. That’s more than Haslam has ever received on a single subject. The proposal that passed the Tennessee legislature by a narrow margin requires that activists turn over footage of livestock cruelty to police within 48 hours. Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States say such a law would criminalize long term investigations, like one that led to the conviction of a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer last year.
Animal rights groups have mounted a media blitz, complete with paid advertising in Nashville and Knoxville urging Haslam to veto the bill. TV personality Ellen DeGeneres – a well-known animal activist – had the Humane Society’s CEO on her show to talk about Tennessee’s animal cruelty bill. (More on DeGeneres and ‘Ag Gag’ HERE.)
“These kind of undercover cameras catch a lot of things,” DeGeneres said. “It’s important to keep that kind of thing going.”
It’s unclear how many of the calls and emails are coming from out of state, says a spokesman for Gov. Haslam. Only 16 of the fielded calls have supported the legislation.
— Note: The legislature’s website still says that, as of Tuesday, the bill was awaiting signatures of the House and Senate speakers — a necessary step in the formalities before the bill is officially sent to the governor’s desk. Once on the governor’s desk, he has 10 days — counting Saturday’s but not Sundays — to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
The Humane Society of the United States, lawmakers and two media groups held a State Capitol news conference Monday to urge Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a bill they say would end undercover investigations of animal abuse in the state, reports Richard Locker.
In addition, HSUS began running television ads in Knoxville and Nashville on Saturday encouraging Tennesseans to contact the governor’s office to encourage a veto of what opponents call the “Ag Gag” bill passed by the legislature last week.
HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said his group is spending $100,000 on the TV ads initially. The ads are not running in Memphis, Chattanooga or elsewhere yet but the governor’s office said Monday it had received about 2,000 emails and phone calls on the issue. The governor said Friday that he’s studying the bill.
House Bill 1191/Senate Bill 1248 amends Tennessee’s cruelty to animals statutes to require a person who records, “by photograph, digital image, video or similar medium” for the purpose of documenting cruelty to livestock, to report the violation to the local law enforcement agency and submit any recordings to them within 48 hours.
Pacelle said the bill is part of a national movement to make it a crime to do the kind of undercover work that HSUS did in Fayette County in 2011 when it documented abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses at a trainer’s stable.
Pacelle also disputed statements made by the House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, that HSUS “held” its undercover recordings of the abuse for four months before reporting to law enforcement.
Pacelle said his HSUS gave recordings to federal prosecutors within two weeks after its undercover operative got a job at the trainer’s stable and, at the prosecutors’ request, the videos were not publicly released for another 13 months. By that time, trainer Jackie McConnell was already under indictment by a federal grand jury in Chattanooga.
“There were so many false statements from the House author in particular,” Pacelle said. “The investigation began in April 2011 and we began to turn information over to the United States attorney for the purpose of enforcing the Horse Protection Act, a federal statute that dates to 1970, within two weeks.”
News release from Humane Society of the United States:
(April 22, 2013) NASHVILLE, Tenn. – At a press conference at the state capitol, The Humane Society of the United States and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville District 13, screened a new television commercial showing violent abuse of horses from an investigation into the Tennessee walking horse industry. The commercial is the latest effort by The HSUS to urge Gov. Bill Haslam to veto SB1248, the special interest “ag-gag” bill.
The commercial, which began airing across Tennessee this weekend, is the latest effort by The HSUS to stop the passage of SB1248, which would make it a crime for investigative journalists and organizations to document and expose inhumane and illegal activity in horse stables and at industrial agriculture facilities. The bill narrowly passed the House with a bare minimum of votes and is heading to Gov. Haslam for action.
In 2011, an HSUS investigation into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s stable in Collierville, Tenn., revealed shocking cruelty to horses. The investigator recorded horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and intentionally burned with caustic chemicals. As a result of that investigation, a federal grand jury handed down a 52-count criminal indictment and a state grand jury indicted McConnell and two others for 38 counts of criminal animal cruelty.
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS said: “This commercial highlights the import role undercover investigations play in exposing inhumane practices that otherwise would remain hidden from the unsuspecting public. We are calling on Gov. Haslam to veto SB1248 and stop the animal cruelty cover-up.”
The crimes at McConnell’s stables would have never come to light but for The HSUS’ undercover investigation, which exposed a culture of lawlessness and cruelty that has thrived within the Tennessee walking horse show industry.
In 2010, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General released a damning report, concluding that “The practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades” and that the “APHIS’ [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] program for inspecting horses for soring is not adequate to ensure that these animals are not being abused.”
The narrator in The HSUS commercial states, “Tennessee politicians have passed a bill to silence whistle blowers, covering up the abuse and protecting the next Jackie McConnell.” The ad also highlights the fact that Tennessee newspapers have joined in opposing this special interest legislation.
A bill to raise penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee fell two votes short of passage in the state Senate Monday night after Sen. Frank Niceley depicted the measure as an attack on farmers raising livestock by animal rights’ activists.
“This bill is not about chickens, not about cockfighting. It’s about killing animal agriculture in America,” said Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.
He contended that bill “makes it illegal to own a bantam hen” and “as written, it could outlaw hunting hogs with hounds in Tennessee.” He also said the Humane Society of the United States, which supports the bill, spent $50,000 trying to defeat him in his last campaign and “word in the hall is” that the organization is spending $90,000 on lobbying.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, sponsor of the bill (SB285), said the bill would not make ownership of chickens “of any kind” illegal would merely bring Tennessee in line with 39 other states in penalizing cockfighting.
He also declared that he was not sponsoring the bill for HSUS, but because the mild penalty now was bringing crime associated with cockfighting to Tennessee. In 2008, he said the TBI arrested a group of cockfighters engaged in “multi-ton meth and heroin” shipments, working in conjunction with “Mexican drug dealers.”
The bill sets a minimum fine of $500 for both those who engage in cockfighting and spectators on first offense, though the crime would still be classed as a misdemeanor. The current minimum fine is $50.
Those convicted of a second offense for engaging in cockfighting could be prosecuted on a felony under the bill, subject to a fine of up to $3,000 and six years in jail.
Sens. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, and Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, expressed misgivings about the bill.
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, repeated a remark he said was initially made by another senator years ago: “A chicken’s got a lot better chance in the ring than he does with Colonel Sanders.”
The final vote was 15-8 with nine senators abstaining or not voting. A bill needs 17 yes votes to pass the Senate.