Pork checkoff overseer accused of illegal lobbying

News
Dec 7, 2012

In an entertaining case of the pot calling the kettle black, one of the country’s loudest lobbying groups has accused the country’s largest pork group of illegal lobbying.

At the end of last month, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a legal complaint against the USDA Office of the Inspector General against the National Pork Board (NPB) for what it calls illegal lobbying use of pork checkoff funds. The complaint alleges pork checkoff funds collected by NPB were sent to the National Pork Producer’s Council’s (NPPC) Pork Alliance program which is dedicated to lobbying efforts.

“If checkoff funds have been illegally diverted to lobbying, USDA should take swift action to ensure America’s pig farmers are not footing the bill for the pork industry’s high-priced lobbyists,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for litigation at HSUS, in the group’s statement on the move.

HSUS’ complaint and request of investigation stems from the prohibition on pork checkoff funds being used for lobbying purposes and the presence of NPB—the group which collects the funds—listed as NPPC’s Pork Alliance partner. That level of involvement comes with $20,000 a year dues.

According to its webpage, the Pork Alliance is an opportunity for industry leaders to join with NPPC on pork issues. Funds from dues go to fund “outreach for critical legislative and regulatory industry priorities.”

This is the main sticking point of HSUS’ claim of misused pork checkoff funds.

“The Board’s Alliance Partnership constitutes prohibited legislative activity, no matter the extent to which the Pork Board participates in the program.

...We therefore request that the USDA Office of the Inspector General immediately investigate the National Pork Board’s participation in the NPPC Pork Alliance program and take all actions necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.”

In a response statement, CEO Chris Novak of NPB explained that NPB does not pay dues to Pork Alliance program, but rather underwrites the cost of an annual dinner meeting for the group and others which was approved by USDA.

“And just being at a meeting—just speaking to a group that does lobbying— does not constitute lobbying,” Novak told Feedstuffs.

Novak expressed disappointment but no surprise over HSUS’ efforts, comparing the strategy to the same one used against poultry producers and other animal agricultural groups.

“This latest attack by the Humane Society of the United States against America’s family pig farmers, like the animal-rights activists’ previous ones, won’t work and won’t scare pig farmers into abandoning practices that protect the well-being of their animals.”

Ultimately, NPB called the recent claims of HSUS against its use of pork checkoff dollars “patently and demonstrably false,” the statement said.

“This attack shows HSUS’ desperation following its failure to get the so-called egg bill approved by Congress and its stunning defeats during the November elections. It poured hundreds of thousands of its ‘members’ contribution dollars into political races against lawmakers who support America’s family farmers and at least one state ballot initiative. It lost the latter and many of the political races in which it was involved.”

This complaint by HSUS follows an earlier lawsuit initiated in September involving NPB, the Pork Checkoff Program, and the “Pork: the other white meat” slogan. This also follows HSUS’ shared litigative efforts with R-CALF against the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association regarding beef checkoff fund use first announced back in August.

Irony

There is a level of irony involved with HSUS’ accusation of illegal lobbying against NPB considering HSUS is a non-profit organization and such groups are not supposed to lobby. Despite this, the group is well-known for its lobbying efforts on both state and federal levels.

On its own website, HSUS describes among its primary activities “advocating for sensible public policies” to “reduce suffering” in animals. Additionally, on its frequently asked questions page, it answers the question of “what does the HSUS do?” by saying:

“We protects [sic] all animals through legislation, litigation, investigation, education, science, advocacy and field work.”

Elsewhere it touts its success in its legislative efforts.

“Our track record of effectiveness has led to meaningful victories for animals in Congress, state legislatures, courtrooms and corporate boardrooms.”

Though none of this directly uses the word “lobbying,” it is difficult to interpret the frequent reference to legislative efforts as anything but. Additionally, HSUS’ record of backing state legislative efforts during elections is hard to miss.

In the most recent election cycle alone, HSUS backed several ballot measures in various states such as North Dakota’s Measure 5. According to one of the top opponents of the measure, HSUS donated substantially in support of its passage.

“We know that HSUS invested at least $676,000 in to this measure and the post-election reports will likely show that they spent even more trying to buy a victory in the final weeks,” said Don Nikodim, chairman of Missouri Farmers Care, a group which was among the strongest opponents to the measure.

Other ballot measures HSUS has supported in the past include California’s Proposition 2 from 2008 which passed, banning the confinement of sows to gestation stalls in the state. In that effort, HSUS was the top contributor, donating over eight times as much as the next highest contributor at a little over $4 million. According to its own 990 tax form from 2009, the year following that election, HSUS posted $19.7 million in expenses for “Campaigns, Legislation, and Litigation.”

HSUS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and the Internal Revenue Service states such organizations “may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities.”

Lobbying efforts are clearly not outright illegal for non-profits, as evidenced by the presence of a lobbying category for expenses on the 990 form. It can also be assumed—given its size, prominence, and the fact its non-profit tax exempt status remains—that HSUS gets away with its lobbying efforts by making them not a “substantial part of its activities,” despite the emphasis it puts on its legislative efforts, both financially and in its own documentation. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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