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Sen. Tom Harkin speaks out against penalizing ag whistleblowers

Moments before members of the Iowa House voted to institute new criminal penalties for those involved in undercover sting operations at agricultural facilities, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin cautioned that such penalties don’t appear to be in the public’s best interest.

Harkin, who has not studied the specifics of the bills before Iowa and other state lawmakers, said at first blush the proposals sound like something that would not be good public policy.

“Thankfully, because of whistleblowers and others doing undercover work, we are finding out about a lot of the abuses that are taking place in animal agriculture — and some of those abuses have just been awful,” Harkin said during a conference call with reporters.

“[Such abuses] should not be allowed to continue, but a lot of the time they are done in isolated places [where] people don’t know about it.”

The Iowa House measure, House File 589, which was introduced and floor managed by state Rep. Annette Sweeney, a north-central Iowa rancher, prohibits individuals or groups from “interfering with an animal facility or crop operation.” Such interference, as defined in the bill, would include audio and visual recordings and their distribution. Those found guilty of interference would be prosecuted for an aggravated misdemeanor crime on a first offense and of a class D felony on any subsequent offenses.

In addition, the bill makes it a crime (fraud) for an individual to gain access to an animal facility or crop operation under false pretenses. First offenders would face an aggravated misdemeanor charge and subsequent offenses would garner felony prosecution.

In Iowa, conviction on a class D felony would subject an individual to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $7,500. Convictions on charges of aggravated misdemeanor carry a term of up to two years in prison, and a fine of up to $6,250.

A similar bill, Senate File 431, was introduced in the Iowa Senate by Sen. Tom Rielly (D-Oskaloosa). It will likely remain stagnant as members of the Senate take up the measure already approved by the Iowa House.

Whistleblowers, often affiliated with animal rights organizations, have often gone undercover at agricultural operations throughout the nation. Their reports, which are often in video format, have documented serious abuses and, many times, have prompted state and federal officials to further investigate the facility or plant.

“I’d have to take a look at the proposal, but I’d not, in any way, want to make it criminal for someone to be able to disclose to the public these types of abusive practices,” Harkin said.

Before approving a final version of the bill, Iowa House members included two amendments — H1278 and H1375. The amendments clean up language in the bill and exclude certain operations (animal shelters, boarding kennels and pet shops).

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