Pressure builds on Haslam to veto ‘Ag-Gag’ bill

On April 22, 2013, in News 2013, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker,
April 22, 2013

NASHVILLE — 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.

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.”

The bill’s Senate sponsor is Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. Haslam said he met with both Gresham and Holt after the bill passed last week to discuss why they proposed it.

It won a 22-9 Senate vote April 16 and 50-43 in the House the next day. It takes 17 votes to approve a bill in the Senate and 50 in the House, which means it passed with the minimum required there.

At the Monday news conference, Rep. Gloria Johnson, R-Knoxville, said, “This bill is anti-whistleblower and gives the industry the power to avoid transparency. In the House, we only lacked one vote to stop this bill. Twenty-three Republicans and 20 Democrats voted against this bill. The coalition against this bill is definitely bipartisan.”

Whit Adamson, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, and Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the bill would hinder journalists and others from documenting abuse.

When the bill was debated in the Senate, Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the bill would criminalize the documenting, not the abuse, and he said the Tennessee Farm Bureau “should be ashamed” for supporting the bill.

“The implication of this bill is that it’s OK to abuse animals but it’s not all right to film it if you don’t tell anybody about it” immediately.


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