Ed Whitfield stood against making horses goose-step
SHELBYVILLE, Tennessee––Congressman Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican known for his attempts to reform the walking horse industry, on August 31, 2016 gave participants in the 78th annual Tennessee National Walking Horse Celebration something extra to celebrate by announcing his resignation from Congress, effective at 6 p.m. on September 6, the first day Congress is back in session after the summer recess.
The 2016 edition of the Tennessee National Walking Horse Celebration, held each year in Shelbyville, opened on August 24 and will close on September 3. Held annually since 1937, the Celebration is “considered the Super Bowl of the walking horse show world,” explained Holly Meyer of the Nashville Tennessean in an August 2015 exposé of walking horse abuses there.
Two-thirds-plus of horses sored
USDA records show that from 67% to 98% of the horses exhibited at the Shelbyville Celebration between 2010 and 2013 tested positive for substances which might have masked “soring,” the focal concern of an amendment to strengthen the Horse Protection Act of 1970 that Whitfield unsuccessfully introduced to Congress in 2013.
Efforts to pass the act led to Whitfield being rebuked in July 2016 by the House Committee on Ethics, a year after he had announced that he would retire after completing his current term in January 2017.
Resigning early “will set in motion a special election for his successor to finish the remaining months of his term,” explained Cristina Marcos of The Hill. “The special election will be held on the same day as the general election contest between Republican James Comer, who’s favored to take the seat, and Democrat Sam Gaskins.”
Whitfield’s resignation raised the question of what it took to get a Republican Congressional Representative from Appalachia, arguably the most culturally conservative part of the U.S., to take a firm stand against walking horse industry abuses in the first place?
The House Committee on Ethics on July 14, 2016 hinted that for Whitfield the balance of considerations may have been tipped by his wife Constance Harriman-Whitfield having been from 2011 to 2015 a senior policy advisor for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the lobbying arm of the Humane Society of the United States.
“Failed to prohibit lobbying contacts”
Following up on a complaint investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics, the House Committee on Ethics unanimously found that Whitfield “failed to prohibit lobbying contacts between his staff and his wife,” and found that Whitfield “failed to take the proper care to avoid violations of the applicable rules,” specifically a House rule that requires members to “prohibit all staff employed by that member … from making any lobbying contact … with that individual’s spouse, if that spouse is a lobbyist.”
The House Committee on Ethics concluded, however, that “Whitfield did not intend to violate the House rules or other standards of conduct, or to benefit himself or his spouse by doing so.”
Whitfield announced in September 2015 that he would retire at the end of 2016, after serving 10 terms as Representative for the 1st Kentucky District.
“This report is the lowest possible reprimand for a House member,” assessed Jeremy Silk Smith of Roll Call, an online political journal published since 1995.
Both Whitfield and Harriman-Whitfield have attributed the ethics investigation to retaliation by Congressional defenders of the walking horse industry, among them 7th Tennessee Congressional District Representative Marsha Blackburn, a fellow Republican, in response to Whitfield’s efforts to strengthen the Horse Protection Act of 1970.
Reminder of abuses
While the House Committee on Ethics rebuke to Whitfield was also an indirect rebuke to the Humane Legislative Fund and Humane Society of the U.S. campaign to strengthen regulation of the walking horse industry, it reminds the public once again of the abuse to horses which appears to be ubiquitous among top-ranked walking horse breeders and trainers.
The Horse Protection Act of 1970 was adopted to stop the use of “soring” potions and devices meant to induce the “big lick” high step, much resembling a Nazi goose step, prized by walking horse show judges.
The Horse Protection Act is, however, routinely flouted, with violations appearing to turn up practically anywhere that humane investigators look for them, albeit that criminal convictions for Horse Protection Act violations remain few.
Friends of Sound Horses reported in 2015 that from 1988 through 2014, Tennessee walking horse trainers had been cited for 4,008 Horse Protection Act violations. Kentucky trainers had been cited for 1,625 violations, Alabama trainers for 787 violations, North Carolina trainers for 572 violations, and Mississippi trainers for 540 violations.
Congressman Whitfield did not have much history involving the walking horse industry before Constance Harriman-Whitfield took the position with the Humane Society Legislative Fund, following a long Washington D.C. career that included stints with the South Africa Wildlife Trust, Department of Justice, and as Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife & Parks from 1989 to 1991. She married Whitfield in 1990, five years before he was elected to Congress.
The walking horse industry is among the longtime economic engines of the perennially depressed mountain region, stretching the length of Kentucky and Tennessee, from western North Carolina and West Virginia to the Ozark hills of Arkansas.
Within the Appalachians walking horse shows are as culturally iconic as cockfighting, coonhunting, and moonshine, perhaps a bit more iconic than bluegrass music since hippies took it up––and, because walking horses tend to be bred, bought, sold, and exhibited by rich and influential people, the walking horse industry tends to enjoy almost the level of political protection that surrounds coal mining.
Whitfield rarely if ever fought the coal industry, but appears to have become emboldened in addressing the abuse of walking horses after the Humane Society of the U.S. in May 2012 released undercover video of then-Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell and two of his employees soring a horse at his stable in Collierville, Tennessee.
All three men were convicted of federal charges. McConnell, the first person to receive criminal penalties under the Horse Protection Act, was expelled from the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame, was fined $75,000, and was sentenced to serve three years on probation.
Whitfield may further have found political courage after walking horse advocate and Kentucky state senator Robin Webb, a Democrat, was cited for two soring violations at the North Carolina Walking Horse Association championships in October 2012.
The Whitfield Amendment
Whitfield in April 2013 introduced an amendment to reinforce the Horse Protection Act which would have forbidden all use of “performance devices” to enhance “big lick” gaits; would have replaced industry self-policing with USDA inspection; and would have increased the penalties for Horse Protection Act violations.
The Whitfield Amendment attracted 230 House co-sponsors, but died in committee. The amendment did, however, appear to stimulate Horse Protection Act enforcement during the balance of 2013.
Larry Joe Wheelon
In May 2013, for example, “After a year-long investigation, the Blount County SPCA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other animal protection groups in May 2013 executed a search warrant at [Larry Joe] Wheelon’s Maryville stables,” recalled Heidi Hall of the Nashville Tennessean.
“Wheelon was cited by the USDA for violating the federal Horse Protection Act at least 15 times between 1993 and 2012,” recalled Roy Exum of The Chattanoogan, “but his arrest [on the state charges] was the first in Tennessee since horse abuse became a felony,” in July 2012.
Blount County SPCA investigator and former police officer Kellie Bachman testified that inside the stables, “The horses were down, they were moaning, they were casting themselves, their legs were all wrapped. It was brutal.”
Walked on technicality
But the case against Wheelon collapsed on August 15, 2013, due to “an apparent breakdown in communication among federal agents,” reported Iva Butler of the Maryville Daily Times. “The essential witness was USDA veterinary medical officer Bart Sutherland, of Washington, D.C., who performed the testing and palpitated the horses for soreness on the day of the raid. He was not allowed to testify because he accidentally sat in the courtroom for 30 minutes during testimony.”
Boarded during the federal proceedings by the Humane Society of the U.S. at an undisclosed location, the 19 horses seized from Wheelon’s barn were returned to him in four different groups between October 16 and November 6, 2013.
Walked again on state charges
As result of the same investigation, a Blount County grand jury in December 2013 indicted Wheelon and stable workers Randall Stacy Gunter and Brandon Randall Lunsford on 18 counts each of aggravated cruelty to livestock animals and conspiracy to commit the cruelty.
Farrier Blake T. Primm was indicted for one felony cruelty count and one misdemeanor conspiracy count, both involving the same horse.
But Blount County Circuit Judge Tammy Harrington dismissed those charges in May 2015, ruling, Exum summarized, “that some ‘undercover’ visits by a federal agent before the [April 2013 search] warrant was issued violated Wheelon’s rights and said there were also some credibility issues with an affidavit that supported the search warrant.”
Exhibitors resisted enforcement
The SHOW Horse Industry Organization meanwhile resisted enforcing a strengthened set of USDA-recommended minimum penalties for Horse Protection Act violations almost to the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Celebration.
The minimum penalties prescribe that any violation of the Horse Protection Act that requires a suspension of a horse is also to bring the suspension of the horse’s owner, manager, trainer, rider, custodian, and seller, following a notification and appeals process that permits each accused individual to contest the charges. If the offense is a bilateral sore, the transporter is also to be suspended, after going through the same due process.
Penalties for Horse Protection Act violations were formerly erased from trainers’ records after their suspensions were served. Violation records are now permanent.
SHOW-HIO and other walking horse industry organizations sued seeking to overturn the new minimum penalties, but the penalties and the USDA enforcement procedure were on July 30, 2013 upheld by the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth.
“No incentive to breed”
Following the 2013 Shelbyville Celebration, SHOW-HIO announced that of 2,087 horses inspected before and after exhibition, “only” 31 violations were discovered, involving 30 horses, down from 56 horses disqualified in 2012.
The 2013 Celebration was barely over, reported Jason Reynolds of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, before Celebration chief executive Mike Inman and other walking horse industry leaders headed to Washington D.C. “to push alternative legislation to the Whitfield Amendment” proposed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky.)
Should the Whitfield Amendment pass, Inman told Reynolds, “There would be no incentive to breed show horses.”
In the end, no new legislation was adopted.