The legal wrangling might be decades old, but arguments regarding your beef checkoff have now spilled onto social media platforms, along with ironic twists on constitutional freedoms.
Kate Miller represents a new generation of beef stakeholders finding her voice on social media and eager to deal with the repercussions. Miller, a third-generation Arkansas cattle producer, exercises her First Amendment freedoms through social media and commentaries published on websites such as Drovers. She ignited a firestorm in August with a Facebook video stating her support for the checkoff and her disdain for those attempting to bring it down. The backlash on social media was both swift and vicious.
“A subgroup of anti-checkoff folks really came after me,” Miller says. “Some of them wrote some really nasty things. They attacked my appearance, insulted my intelligence and some went so far as to email my employer, calling for me to be fired.”
The irony of Miller’s experience is that the beef checkoff’s legal challenge in Montana is based on its alleged violation of the First Amendment rights of Montana cattlemen. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF) filed the lawsuit last year challenging the constitutionality of the Montana Beef Council’s (MBC) spending of checkoff dollars. The suit alleges the 50% share of checkoff dollars collected in Montana and spent by the MBC fund private speech, and are therefore unconstitutional, because the MBC is a private entity.
Last year, District Court Judge Brian Morris, Great Falls, Mont., issued a preliminary injunction that enjoins USDA from using money collected from Montana ranchers to fund the advertising campaigns of the MBC unless Montana ranchers first give their consent. That injunction was upheld in April by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the result has financially crippled the MBC.
“MBC went from an $800,000 budget last year to a $200,000 budget this year,” says Jim Steinbeisser, Sidney, Mont., who has served on the MBC and is currently vice president of the Montana Stock Growers. Steinbeisser and others believe the motives behind the lawsuit have less to do with First Amendment infringements and more about incapacitating the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Since finding success with the preliminary injunction against the MBC, R-CALF now seeks to expand the injunction to 14 other states whose beef councils operate similar to Montana: Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.
While R-CALF claims they are simply fighting for the rights of independent farmers and ranchers, NCBA and others believe R-CALF’s motives are to abolish the checkoff and choke the trail of money to checkoff contractors, of which NCBA is the largest. R-CALF critics say the group seeks that outcome by any means necessary.
NCBA CEO Kendal Frazier says R-CALF is “in cahoots with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)” to abolish the checkoff. He refers specifically to Public Justice and David Muraskin, the law firm and lead attorney representing R-CALF in the law suit.
Frazier also maintains that the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), a like-minded anti-checkoff group, is now a “front-group for the radical HSUS.”
Miller corroborated those claims in her Facebook video and commentaries posted on Drovers.com. The evidence shows links between the three groups—R-CALF, OCM and HSUS—that date back several years, with Public Justice as a common ally. Such collaboration is often confirmed by a follow-the-money tactic, but in this case Frazier and Miller say it’s the lack of a money trail that is most damning.
Following the lack of a money trail between the groups only provided more questions.
Civil lawsuits are not cheap, and a review of R-CALF’s income—as reported through federal 990 forms—indicates the group operates on an annual budget of roughly $400,000, which is presumably used for staff salaries and maintaining a Billings, Mont., office. In addition to Muraskin, R-CALF is also represented in the case by J. Dudley Butler, of the Farm and Ranch Law Group, and Bill Rossbach of Rossbach Law, P.C. in Missoula, Mont.
“Public Justice’s annual operating revenues are about $4.8 million,” Frazier says. “The Humane Society of the United States’ operating revenue is about $126 million. I don’t have a copy of a check, or a copy of bank statements, but it doesn’t take long to figure out who is paying the legal bills on this case.”
Similar circumstances exist at OCM, though the group is smaller with even less revenue.
“The tie between OCM and HSUS is pretty clear,” says John Robinson, NCBA’s vice president of membership and communications. “Their executive director is Joe Maxwell, who is a former employee of the HSUS. Their 990 statements show $25,000 in revenue, but they have a job posting online right now for an outreach coordinator for about $40,000 per year. They’re getting money from someplace.”
If so, it’s not going to Joe Maxwell, according to Joe Maxwell.
“In 2015 I became the acting executive director, and in 2016 I became the executive director. And I did so without pay,” Maxwell says. “I have been an associate member for a long time, and now I work every day on issues that are important to OCM.”
Maxwell is a lawyer and a fourth-generation Missouri hog farmer who also served in the state legislature and as lieutenant governor. He says he’s working to raise money for OCM through increasing memberships and soliciting donations.
“I hope to reach a threshold and be paid someday. I’m doing something I love and believe in,” Maxwell says.
Muraskin also denies he’s being paid for his efforts.
“My organization receives absolutely no money from any agency. Period. Full stop,” Muraskin says. “I have never been employed by HSUS, or received any money from them. Period. Full Stop. As I just told the R-CALF convention where I spoke, I adopted a dog and the dog did not come from an HSUS shelter. I have no relationship whatsoever.”
So, is he working for R-CALF pro bono?
“The way a civil rights action like the checkoff suit would work is that if we were to prevail, we would be able to submit to the court for attorney’s fees, which would then be paid by the government,” Muraskin says.
And what is behind Public Justice’s interest in the checkoff lawsuit?
“We are interested in two things,” Muraskin says. “One, transparency in the food system and finding ways in which corporate control and consolidation has been used to exploit growers, producers, communities and consumers. We think that is both a problem of transparency and First Amendment rights.”
Public Justice believes allowing state beef councils to take 50% of checkoff dollars collected within states where state beef councils are private violates the First Amendment.
All of which seems to fit Public Justice’s objective, to offer civil legal aid “that provides advice and representation to low-income clients, advocates before legislatures and government agencies, and collaborates with community and advocacy organizations.” The groups says it “chooses projects and cases that will make a significant impact on systems, laws and policies.”
Any connection between R-CALF and HSUS was also denied by R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard.
“Those are blatantly false claims,” Bullard says. “Organizations that have made absolutely false claims provided no basis in support of those false claims.”
Bullard says his group continues to seek legal remedy against the checkoff to “preserve and protect the constitutional rights of cattle producers, and afford producers a choice as to where they want their money to go along with the choice as to whether they want to support a private entity that may be supporting corporate interest over their interests.”
Maxwell says OCM doesn’t actually want to end the checkoff, but seeks reform. Bullard says R-CALF believes the “checkoff program is using a sufficient amount of dollars to work against the economic and financial interests of producers.”
Despite denials from R-CALF and OCM regarding any relationship with HSUS, Nebraska cattleman Craig Uden says it’s “disappointing when we have producer groups that want to align with groups that want to bring down our industry.” He believes NCBA’s focus is on “growing the industry and responding to consumers in the right way.”
What is often lost in the debate between the groups is that NCBA does not control the money collected by the checkoff. The Cattlemen’s Beef Board is responsible for managing the checkoff funds and selecting contractors such as NCBA to implement projects using checkoff money. Indeed, NCBA is the largest contractor of those selected. But who better, advocates ask, than America’s largest producer organization to conduct consumer programs and research initiatives to improve the quality and marketability of beef?
If the checkoff’s opponents prevail in court, “the only thing they do is take away some of the producer control because the state beef councils manage their 50% of the checkoff,” Uden says. “Additionally, most producers appreciate all the work (the checkoff) has done on international trade. A lot of our profit has been in shipping $300 out of every critter into the export market.”
As a past NCBA president with both ranching and feedlot interests, Uden says he’s seen the value of the checkoff at many levels, and he maintains his disappointment for those working to dismantle it. For him, R-CALF and OCM can deny their affiliation with HSUS, but, he says, “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…”