Don’t horse around, Governor

On May 11, 2013, in News 2013, by Mark Norris
May 11, 2013

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam should veto the so-called “ag gag” bill, which grew out of the federal conviction of one of Tennessee’s top walking horse trainers and now seems shaped by the walking horse industry to block future investigations.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the governor will review the bill and probably make a decision Monday or Tuesday about whether to sign or veto the bill that requires anyone who photographs or videotapes abuse of an animal to give a copy to police within 48 hours.

Proponents say the bill is aimed at protecting animals. But critics such as the Humane Society of the United States say it is really an “ag gag” bill aimed at blocking investigators from obtaining detailed documentation of abuse.

Haslam has wrestled with the decision.

The mighty Tennessee Farm Bureau backs the bill, as does Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

But thousands of Tennesseans don’t.

Haslam’s office has been bombarded with about 15,000 emails and telephone calls. The vast majority are urging the governor’s veto. Celebrities including Priscilla Presley and country music superstar Carrie Underwood also seek a veto. And more than 33,000 people nationwide have signed an American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee petition urging his veto.

On Thursday, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper issued a 10-page legal opinion finding the bill is “constitutionally suspect” on three grounds under the U.S. Constitution.

The bill was prompted by the storm created when top walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell, of Collierville, Tenn., pleaded guilty last spring in federal court to abuse chronicled with videos collected by an undercover Humane Society operative.

A year before, the Humane Society of the United States went undercover and secretly filmed activity at McConnell’s training stable. The video showed trainers and grooms “soring” horses with caustic substances applied to their legs and hooves to force their high-stepping gait.

McConnell was taped beating a horse to “school” him against moving when his sore legs were massaged as a show inspector would do.

The industry claims such abuse is rare — just an occasional rotten apple. But McConnell had been honored by the industry at least once as “trainer of the year.”

The bill’s opponents — especially the $1.4 billion walking horse industry — also charge that long-term video documentation leaves the animals in abusive situations, and some accuse the Humane Society of using the video probes at fundraising events.

“This video was sat on for four months,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said. “They did nothing to stop the abuse … didn’t turn it over to law enforcement” and chose to release it at the “opportune time for them to benefit, I guess HSUS’s fundraising.”

That’s not exactly correct. According to federal law enforcement officials, the Humane Society turned the film over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators responsible for walking horse show inspections. The USDA, in turn, asked U.S. District Attorney Bill Killian to prosecute McConnell and others on the film. The film was not released to the public until after McConnell was convicted last summer.

When the bill was approved by the Senate in April, Senate sponsor Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said the bill’s goal to require handing over the video quickly was to stop such activity immediately. McConnell’s stable is in her district.

But when Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, introduced an amendment making the bill applicable to everyone who witnesses animal abuse, Gresham successfully moved to table it.

“What’s wrong with this bill is you’re criminalizing the filmmaker, not the abuse,” Norris said.

Gresham’s bill passed 22-9 with Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, also voting for it. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, did not vote.

This week, the airwaves in Tennessee have been peppered with a six-figure ad campaign by the Humane Society to raise public pressure for Haslam’s veto.

“Tennessee politicians have passed a bill to silence whistle-blowers, covering up the abuse and protecting the next Jackie McConnell,” the ad charges.

But the Horse Protection Act of 1970 never had a soring conviction until last year. In part, that’s because historically animal rights groups and individuals have had a difficult time persuading local police and sheriffs to act. That’s why the Humane Society took its collection of McConnell films to federal authorities.

Haslam has vetoed only one bill since taking office in 2011.

He should make this one No. 2.

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