Iowa ag production fraud bill

Mar 2, 2012

The Iowa House and Senate last week approved the so-called “ag gag bill” that will establish penalties for those lying on job applications to go undercover on farms.

The bill now goes to Gov. Terry Branstad for a signature to make it law. The Senate changed the legislation last year before approving it last Tuesday on a 40- 10 vote. The House adopted the Senate’s changes without debate and approved it on a 69-28 vote.

Producers want the legislation to protect the state’s agricultural economy against activists who deliberately cast their operations in a negative light and continue videotaping rather than reporting abuse immediately.

But the Iowa Attorney General’s Office told senators last year that the House bill could face constitutional challenges because of provisions making it illegal to possess or distribute audio or video recordings. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that films exposing animal cruelty represent the exercise of free speech.

In response, Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, and Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, worked on a provision to the bill that does not deal with recordings.

The Senate version doesn’t address audio or video recordings issues. Instead, it would create a new crime: Agricultural production facility fraud.

A person who falsely gains access to a facility or lies on a job application with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner could be found guilty and face serious or aggravated misdemeanor charges.

Critics such as Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the new version is an improvement over the original, but still a mistake.

“Passing this bill will put a big red question mark stamped on every pork chop, every chicken wing, every steak, and every egg produced in this state because it will raise the question of what do you got to hide,” Quirmbach said.

No Senate Republican spoke on the bill. Seng was the only advocate who spoke before passing the Senate version in a 40 to 10 vote. No Republicans voted against the bill.

“The farmer has millions of dollars sometimes invested in these facilities,” Seng said. “They don’t even have to try to uncover anything. Just being on the facility can bring in infection and disease to the point that it can cost them thousands of dollars.”

Last year, the Iowa House voted to establish a prison sentence of up to 10 years for people caught going into a livestock confinement to take pictures or video of the animals and those who are caring for the livestock.

Rep. Annette Sweeney, a Republican who raises row crops and cattle on her farm near Alden, said the Senate version is more lenient.

“For right now I think it’s a start, to realize that we are serious about protecting the agriculture that we have in this state,” Sweeney says.

The bill makes it a Class A Misdemeanor to hide a recording device on a farm and Class B Misdemeanor to shoot video or photos after being asked not to or record while trespassing.

In Utah, a similar bill was on its way to the Senate at press time. House Bill 187, sponsored by Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, would create criminal penalties for recording agricultural operations in Utah. The bill was originally introduced with a penalty of a Class A Misdemeanor for the first offense of recording agricultural operations, with subsequent offenses jumping to thirddegree felonies. HB187 was amended on the House floor to temper the penalties; the penalty now would be a Class B Misdemeanor for those who record images in defiance of express warnings and those who record images while trespassing on agricultural operations. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor