By: KATIE TERHUNE, Associated Press
Lawmakers voted Thursday to send to full House debate a bill that would block activists from secretly filming agricultural operations in hopes of capturing abuse on camera.
The 13-1 vote came after the House Agricultural Affairs Committee heard testimony from dozens of farmers and animal rights supporters. Just one Democrat, Rep. Mat Erpelding of Boise, opposed the measure that's already won Senate approval.
The bill, backed by Idaho's dairy industry, would slap those who sneak onto farms or get access under false pretenses to film animal abuse with fines and up to a year in jail. It comes in response to videos released by activists in 2012 showing Idaho's Bettencourt Dairy workers beating, caning, stomping and sexually abusing cows at the dairy's Hansen facility.
An activist with the Mercy for Animals group captured the abuse on film after getting a job at the dairy.
That's what lawmakers say they want to prevent with the ag gag bill. Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder said it would protect the state's farmers from being targeted by radical groups.
"Now more than ever, we're seeing attacks on our agricultural producers by extreme activities that exploit agriculture's vulnerability of being visible and accessible," she said. "Idaho should not tolerate these extreme tactics because our hardworking agricultural producers and their families deserve much better."
Rick Onaindia, CFO of Bettencourt Dairy, also spoke against the activists. He said it was unfair the dairy's name was being dragged through the mud even though its owner, Luis Bettencourt, had neither participated in nor even known about the abuse. Bettencourt cooperated fully with the investigation, helping the prosecution of five men seen beating the animals, Onaindia said.
After the video was released, however, some of the dairy's customers cut ties and the dairyman and his employees received death threats.
Mercy For Animals "allowed, supported, and instigated the conviction of Bettencourt in the court of public opinion," Onaindia said. "Luis Bettencourt has always had a zero tolerance policy on his facilities for any mistreatment of animals, and always will."
Jim Lowe of Food Producers of Idaho was also among those who blasted activists for using the film footage to launch a smear campaign against the dairy rather than releasing it in its entirety as soon as they knew about the abuse.
"This business of sneaking footage that can be edited and released in a media campaign is not about painting a full picture," Lowe said. "This bill is not about hiding anything. This bill is about honesty, it's about truth, it's about due process and it's about the right of the individual to control their private property."
Foes of the measure argued that the dairy industry and other agricultural interests behind the bill are seeking to put the ability to document inhumane practices beyond the reach of the public.
"As a consumer, I will not buy from an industry that wants to keep me in the dark," Boise resident Elham Marder said, adding she's worried the bill punishes people seeking to record and report criminal conduct like that of the Bettencourt employees.
Idaho already laws has against trespassing, Marder said, adding the bill could impact anyone on a site who spots mistreatment, not just activists who go there looking for it.
And Lisa Kauffman, the lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States in Idaho that's launched a campaign against the dairy industry's measure, says it eliminates a legal way for concerned citizens or employees to get proof of mistreatment.
"Without audio, video, or a snapshot from a cellphone, the only proof someone will have is his word," she said.
Utah, Idaho's neighbor to the south, has a similar law on its books, though activists are challenging it in court.