This morning on NPR’s national newsfeed, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, made a clear and concise statement concerning the recent scrubbing of all animal enforcement actions under both the Animal Welfare Act(AWA) and the Horse Protection Act ( HPA) from the USDA’s website. His clear comment about the danger that removing information that serves the public interest represents , was countered by the comment made by Mindy Patterson of the Cavalry Group, a privately held lobbying firm based in Missouri. Ms. Patterson told NPR that the reason groups like the HSUS wanted this information available was because they wrongly used data from federal records in order to keep anyone interested in breeding animals from being able to make a living .
Missouri, as you may recall, was home to a number of horrendous puppy mills. An orchestrated attempt by groups like Cavalry and financed by groups like Protect the Harvest to protect puppy mill operators from having to meet even minimal standards of humane care and maintenance for its canine production workers was put into play.
Ultimately, the will of the voters in the state of Missouri prevailed in Prop B and it also survived a repeal effort; it wasn’t because of the Cavalry Group and Protect the Harvest but despite them.
Does this all tie together? You can go back to previous blog posts on this site for some background on related issues, but for a fast refresher: Ms. Patterson served on the board of directors of Heart of American Walking Horse Association whose HIO, serving the walking horse show world in both Missouri and in other nearby states, was once under consideration for having its certification pulled by the USDA for failure to fully enforce the HPA. Her Cavalry Group was actively involved in efforts made by the Walking Horse show business to push back the PAST Act and donations were collected to fund her efforts.
The executive director of Protect the Harvest, Brian Klippenstein, is now the head of the transition team at the USDA.
Forrest Lucas, an oil executive with a boutique beef business, is the founder of Protect the Harvest, a non-profit which unabashedly declares that it was founded as an anti-HSUS organization, determined to fund initiatives and activities to counter HSUS animal welfare proposed legislation and efforts. Lucas, who it is reported was responsible for the ultimate selection of Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia and a veterinarian by training, to bethe new Secretary of Agriculture ( USDA) , also happens to be a friend of Duke Thorson.
Thorson, who has Protect the Harvest as a sponsor of one of his truck racing teams, is also the Thorson of Thorsport Farm in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the subject of a recent, months long, HSUS undercover investigation. The investigation produced allegations and evidence of inhumane training practices occurring at the facility that were presented to local law enforcement in Rutherford County. There, for reasons never determined, the district attorney declined to act on this evidence and the book was closed or, more precisely, slammed shut. There would be no Jackie McConnell type revelations presented to a jury in the ‘Boro.
Jackie, also the subject of an HSUS undercover investigation, had the misfortune to run afoul of a federal judge while serving a federal suspension for violation of the HPA. The book already open in his case, was reviewed, and then was thrown at him, although some thought, at the time, not hard enough. Importantly, what happened with McConnell , all happened in the light of day.
No matter your political inclinations, across the country the majority of Americans call out for transparency and openness in the operation of the federal government. Tea Party types, libertarians, mainline conservatives and liberals have all been able to find common ground in the belief that when transparency and openness, including electronic access to government records, is not a priority of the federal government , that resultant corruption and governance by special interest groups is the behind- closed- doors result and these results do not serve the common good.
The methods for how to best get to transparency, openness, and electronic access to federal records may be up for discussion; shutting down all access, except through the cumbersome and outdated FOIA process, and scrubbing the records clean of all transgressions on sites like the USDA’s, has a chilling effect on the public’s need to know and its right to know. Wiping the books clean does nothing but shield lawbreakers from public exposure while disenfranchising the public of the right to know how the federal government not only enforces laws existing on the books but also spends funds that come from the taxpayers of the United States of America, all the taxpayers, not just the few driving a government blackout.
This blackout, "surely" coincidentally, also protects the interests of campaign donors whose elected officials of choice have derived great financial benefit over the years. They have worked on the behalf of their donor “friends” to keep the PAST Act from coming to the floor of the Congress for a vote or from full enforcement of the HPA, despite a 2010 independent report by a federal Inspector General that found the HPA was being enforced selectively and that the HIO system, pushed down the throat of the USDA years ago, by these same special interests through their favorite politicians, was at best ineffective ( some would say corrupt).
In the case of the missing HPA data, some of those well -heeled friends saw their names disappear from public view, not only through this sweeping erasure of the past at the USDA, but in a process begun with recent litigation against the USDA by their ilk. Using some very fancy footwork that postulated that only violations of the HPA that proceeded to a federal case and resulted in a judgment against individuals could be considered to be violations of the law; hence , all suspensions levied by the HIOs ( supposedly a partner in helping the USDA enforce the law) for what those inspectors deemed violations of the HPA, could not be considered to actually be violations and should not be part of the public record. How's that for amazing logic? The USDA took down the data set before the case, dubbed McGartland 2 by industry insiders, has been decided and before the current scrubbing. The USDA press release says that the removal is the result of a year long review of how to deal with these sorts of records.
Now, 7060s, letters of warning for the presence of foreign substances found on horses through random swabbings, are out the door, as is the ability to find initial decisions and orders, default decisions and consent decisions for violation of the Horse Protection Act on the USDA pages.
Electronic Access forms, such as this one, are gone, like the dodo, from the USDA site.
USDA Horse Protection Act Disqualification and Civil Penalty List (as of December 1, 2016)
The following list identifies individuals and/or companies that have been assessed a Federal Disqualification under the Horse Protection Act. While under Federal Disqualification, a person is prohibited from showing, exhibiting or entering any horse, directly or indirectly through any agent, employee, or other device, and from judging, managing or otherwise participating in any horse show, horse exhibition or horse sale or auction. Please note that while the list below identifies the disqualification periods for the individuals and companies, the list is not controlling. The controlling documents setting forth the terms and dates of the Federal Disqualification are the signed Decisions and Orders, hyperlinked below.
These listings helped the general public make links to other news stories. As an example, William Brock Tillman, listed on the Dec. 2016 USDA disqualification form for violation of the HPA, was once a trainer at Thorsport Farm during the period of the HSUS undercover investigation.
His wife posted on Facebook, after a trainer pointed his truck at a protestor at a horse show in Columbia , Tennessee, ( later found guilty of the act in a Columbia courtroom), that she was “sorry he missed. Let ‘em Walk On.”
Tillman, through a consent decision, received a fine of $2,200 and a 16 month suspension that runs from 6/6/2016 through 10/6/2017. That USDA document, listing not only the results but linking to the Consent Decision itself, is no longer available for research, although perhaps the OALJ site that was referenced to search these cases may eventually return to service.
Lacking the ability to connect the dots through public disclosure, if you were a horse owner you would never know anything about the enforcement history of a trainer and might unwittingly place a horse in his care .
That’s why Wayne Pacelle was speaking out on NPR this morning. Yesterday he wrote a blog about this same subject, outlining the reasons the public should be concerned, how they are impacted, and setting out what the HSUS intends to do about the current situation.
HSUS, it turns out, has standing on this issue because of a 2009 decision and agreement entered into by the USDA to provide electronic access and transparency about enforcement records. By these recent actions, that agreement has been violated. While the HSUS works its way through the legal steps available to “let the sun shine in” once more at the USDA, there is also a petition you can sign that will add your name to the lists of people who believe that government functions best when its actions are open and transparent, when the public interest is protected rather than thwarted. Mr. Pacelle’s blog and information about the petition follows:
The HSUS challenges USDA over mass removal of animal welfare records
By Wayne Pacelle on February 6, 2017
"There’s an outpouring of anger and mistrust about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s abrupt decision late last week to delete from its website inspection reports on thousands of commercial dog breeding operators, Tennessee walking horse show participants, roadside zoos, animal research labs, and other facilities regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Horse Protection Act (HPA). Today, The HSUS took the first step to initiate legal action to challenge this outrageous action that undermines longstanding consensus about public access to information concerning these laws, and frustrates state, local, and industry efforts to help enforce them.
The HSUS sued the USDA in 2005 over public access to AWA reports concerning animal use in university and other laboratories. That case was settled in 2009 in exchange for the USDA’s agreement to post certain data on its website concerning research on animals. The agency’s precipitous decision to purge virtually all AWA and HPA enforcement documentation – just two weeks after President Trump assumed office — violates the plain terms of the settlement and a federal court order. It also runs contrary to Congressional provisions in 1996 and 2016 designed to increase transparency and electronic access to information.
Under the order, once we file a notice of a violation, the parties must consult for 30 days to try to resolve the dispute. If that is not successful, the agency can be ordered to comply or be held in contempt. The prior lawsuit only covers some of the vast corpus of important enforcement data the USDA has scrubbed from its website. We hope this mandatory consultation period will give the USDA a chance to reconsider this ill-advised and precipitous maneuver across the board.
There is more than just a principle of transparency and good government at stake here. These documents are essential to a wide range of matters of direct interest to The HSUS, dozens of other animal welfare groups, state and federal lawmakers and regulators, regulated businesses, and many other stakeholders who rely upon the records of a public agency. Like every federal agency, the USDA operates thanks to the generosity of taxpayers, and it must be accountable to them. The USDA is changing the equation for the worse for animals and the public with this action. Let me break that down in very practical terms.
In a piece published last month in Rolling Stone titled “The Dog Factory: Inside the Sickening World of Puppy Mills,” writer Paul Solotaroff described horrific violations at puppy mills, many of which are licensed and inspected by the USDA, but still violate the Animal Welfare Act repeatedly. One Iowa breeder threw a bag containing dead puppies at his USDA inspector. Another Iowa breeder threatened to stab his inspector with a syringe, after the inspector cited him for shooting and killing one of his dogs. These violations only came to light due to the USDA’s online database of puppy mill inspection reports.
Last year, the USDA revoked the licenses of nine horrific puppy mills, most of which The HSUS had identified repeatedly in our annual Horrible Hundred reports. They include Jinson Kennels in Missouri (owned by Wilma Jinson), which was repeatedly found with dead dogs or puppies on its property; Rabbit Ridge Kennel in Missouri (owned by Donald Schrage), which failed to get proper care for more than 90 dogs and puppies over a period of many years; and the facility of Dwayne Hurliman in Oklahoma, one of the largest puppy mills in the country, which once had more than 1,000 dogs. Without the availability of public inspection records, The HSUS would have had great difficulty obtaining the information we needed to press the agency on these cases.
Thanks to The HSUS’s efforts, and the work of thousands of grassroots advocates, seven states bar the sale of puppies from mills with a history of gross violations of the Act. The USDA’s decision to wipe its website clean of inspection reports leaves regulated dog sellers in those states with no practical way to comply with those laws, and state and local law enforcement with almost no ability to enforce them. Without ready access to information, it will be nearly impossible for consumers, law enforcement agencies, policymakers, and pet stores to know which breeders had violations.
Tens of millions of animals are used in research, testing, and education every year in the United States. The public will no longer have ready access to information about hundreds of animal research institutions, including universities, pharmaceutical companies, and federal laboratories using animals regulated under the AWA. This includes information on the number and type of animals (such as dogs, cats, primates, and other species) used as well as how many are subjected to unrelieved pain and distress and the corresponding justification -– information that each facility is required to report annually. Instead, The USDA says the information must be obtained via submission of written FOIA requests which usually take many months or even years to process, and often at a substantial cost to the requester.
This is a second punch in the gut by the Trump administration to horse protection advocates fighting the criminal behavior of the pain-based Big Lick segment of the walking horse industry. The new administration earlier froze a near-finalized USDA rule to crack down on the abusers (there’s a major movement in Congress to turn that around). The denial of real-time access to information about offenses committed under the HPA will frustrate efforts to show the extraordinary violation rates for horse show participants – a data set that has made it clear that this segment of the industry is openly, routinely defying federal law. What’s more, the wiping away of these records from the Internet will hurt the effort by legitimate horse owners to shun the abusers. Many walking horse enthusiasts and newcomers who do not sore their horses or approve of soring use this information as a resource to see who they should select or not select as a trainer, as a breeder, or as a co-owner of a horse, or while purchasing a horse. During The HSUS’s investigation into soring at Thorsport stables in Murfreesboro, Tenn., we discovered that Vida Blue -– one of the horses trained and sored at Thorsport – was owned by Gayle Holcomb, who had a minimum of 10 HPA violations from 2010 to 2015. We found Holcomb’s soring history on the publicly-available USDA database that the new administration has now made disappear.
Exotic animals and roadside zoos:
The HSUS has tracked violations from inspections of roadside zoos, and has put that information in a form that gives state and federal lawmakers and regulators a broad picture of how this industry is complying with the AWA. Officials in a Tennessee county, for example, halted plans for a new drive-thru safari park after discovering the exhibitor had many AWA violations at another location. Our petition to the USDA to prohibit public contact with bears, big cats, and primates relied on historical abuses documented by federal inspectors of exhibitors engaged in these harmful practices. This morning, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has a rigorous accreditation program and which shares our concerns about roadside zoos, called on the USDA to restore the inspection reports on its website. “When the Department of Agriculture decided to take all animal welfare inspection reports offline, there is no doubt some APHIS licensees were very happy: Those who have no desire for the public to know about their animal welfare record,” said the Honorable Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the AZA
Brian Klippenstein, the director of Protect the Harvest – an explicitly anti-animal welfare group formed specifically to fight The HSUS – is leading the transition team at the USDA. Shielding animal abuse records from public view is a long-held ambition of that organization which defends puppy mills, roadside zoos, horse sorers, animal fighters, and others with something to hide when it comes to animal cruelty and suffering. Forrest Lucas, the founder and financier of Protect the Harvest, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight Prop B in Missouri – an anti-puppy-mill ballot measure – and worked to finance a repeal effort when Missouri voters approved it. Last year, Klippenstein was up in Massachusetts, campaigning against Question 3 in Massachusetts – to no avail, with voters approving the measure by an overwhelming 78 percent. Lucas donated a quarter million dollars to fight Question 3.
This withholding of information that the American public has a right to see appears to be an inside job at the USDA – with the head of the Trump transition team probably directing the show. You’d think that USDA would want the work of its field personnel to be examined and used by the public. But this action suggests a deliberate effort to bury its work and impede efforts to ensure the well-being of animals in numerous sectors. The HSUS will continue to pursue this matter until public access is fully restored. Please sign our petition urging the USDA to stop hiding animal welfare records and covering for abusers."
Let the sun shine in! Let the sun shine in! And, at the USDA, let it be sooner rather than later.