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Iowa senator says media has misinformed public on agriculture whistleblower bill

IOWA CITY — The general public has a warped view of a bill that would make it a crime to produce audio or video of an agriculture facility because media coverage of the proposal “is disingenuous,” according to Iowa Sen. Sandy Greiner (R-Keota).

The bill, House File 589, passed the Iowa House on a 66-to-27 vote March 17. Upon arrival in the Iowa Senate, it was referred to the Agriculture Committee, where it was approved on March 21 and recommended for passage. Although several amendments to the bill have been placed on file, the proposed legislation remains filed under unfinished business and is unlikely to get a hearing of the full Senate before the session ends.

If enacted, the bill would provide special protections unique to agricultural operations that would not only protect livestock and crops from damage by outsiders, but would make it a specific crime, labeled as “crop operation interference” or “animal facility interference,” to “produce a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring” at the animal facility or crop operation without consent of the owner. The bill also explicitly notes that it is not to be applied to animal shelters, boarding kennels, commercial kennels, pet shops or pet impoundments.

If found guilty of such a crime, the first offense would be considered an aggravated misdemeanor and all subsequent offenses would be classified as Class D felonies. All those found guilty would be subject to restitution, and could be civilly sued by the owners of the facility for “an amount equaling three times all actual and consequential damages” in addition to court costs and attorney fees. Also, the court is provided a legislative path for granting “any equitable relief that the court determines is appropriate.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/be167cef11er_125.jpg.jpg Sandy Greiner

“On the videotaping thing… first of all, there has been some amendments drawn, but I think the most important thing that you need to know is that it isn’t always described accurately in the news media,” Greiner told audience members at a League of Women Voters legislative forum Saturday.

“This is about someone who intentionally comes to [a farmer] and applies for a job with the intention of getting inside to take photographs. They never say, ‘I want to come to your farm and take photographs.’ They just say, ‘I want to be your top-notch power-washer,’ or your feed grinder, or whatever it is that they want to do. That’s what this bill is trying to get at: People who misrepresent themselves and their intentions.”

Greiner added that the bill “is not about hiding anything,” but offers “protection for any employer.”

“I mean, it doesn’t matter if you own a hardware store and someone is not turning on the fans when they are mixing paint — you know, OSHA has all of the rules. If somebody comes in as an employee and seeks that jobs with the distinct purpose of doing something to defame you, that is where the problem lies.”

The bill before the legislature does not provide these unique protections — or protections outside of existing trespass and fraud laws — to all businesses. The bill is specifically written to only address agricultural facilities with livestock or crops. As noted above, the bill makes it very clear that certain other businesses that work with animals, such as pet shops and kennels, are exempt from the offered protections.

But even if the bill did extend protections to all business owners, a member of the forum audience noted loudly that such a scenarios described by Greiner would only be a problem if the employer was already engaging in unlawful activities.

“But the problem is this: We have two documented situations in other states where two people came on board and they literally staged things. That happened in a chicken facility and a place out east,” she said. “If we have people that are literally creating situations, then that’s bad. That shouldn’t happen. I don’t think anybody in this room would agree that is a good thing, if you have people intentionally setting somebody up.”

Although Greiner admitted that the bill is not likely to have further debate in the Iowa Senate, she said she felt it was important to speak out about the proposed legislation at the forum and to clear up misconceptions.

“The way the bill has been described in some segments of society has been less than accurate and I think it is important, whether we like it or not, we at least describe the bill forthrightly,” said Greiner.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/1326f0e6fbom_125.jpg.jpg Joe Bolkcom

Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) added that the bill is not likely to come up because many lawmakers believe “that we already have strong trespassing laws that we should just enforce.”

“I know there was at least one specific example where people did get hired, took pictures of animals not being well taken care of and then the video came out and it was a big deal,” Bolkcom said. “We’ve had a lot of conversation about it and there have been huge issues about the constitutionality of it … and it is my hope and sense that we are not going to find the language that we can get agreement on in this issue. Hopefully, it is going to go away.”

CNN analysts also concluded that the bill, which has made an appearance in other states this year, is “likely unconstitutional.”

U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Tom Harkin, a Democrat, have both worked for years on federal agriculture policy and have also trended toward additional protections for those who serve as whistleblowers.

This spring Grassley introduced legislation that would extend whistleblower protections to government employees. “I’ve often said whistleblowers are as welcome as skunks at a Sunday picnic, despite the fact that all they do is bring forward the truth,” Grassley said during his floor statement on the proposal.

And, just hours before the Iowa House approved the HF 589, Harkin told reporters that what lawmakers were considering didn’t seem to be good public policy or generally in the public’s best interest.

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