Puppy mill bill killed

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

North Carolina Senate leaders are blaming Brunswick County animal advocates for recording a meeting as the reason they are killing a bill to regulate puppy mills in the state.

N.C. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office issued a news release last week stating the issue will not receive further consideration for the state senate’s 2014 short session because of “unethical tactics” by people lobbying for the bill.

The announcement came after the advocates released to the media copies of a private meeting they recorded Jan. 16 with state Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport veterinarian, to discuss Rabon’s views on the bill.

Berger cited “extreme, divisive and unethical tactics from individuals lobbying for a puppy mill bill” as the reason why the bill will not be considered.

He charged the group secretly recorded the conversation with Rabon, then used it to attempt to “politically extort lawmakers into doing exactly what they demanded.”

Berger’s office also released a statement from Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apocada, a fellow Republican from Henderson County, who charged “unethical and unacceptable tactics of an overzealous few have erased the progress made by Sens. Rabon and (Trudy) Wade.”

Local animal advocate Janie Withers of Ocean Isle Beach said the group recorded the Jan. 16 meeting with Rabon because “we did not want to be accused of slanting his words to suit ourselves.”

Others who attended the meeting were Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram, Calabash veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, Francesca Slaughter with Rescue Animals Community Effort (RACE) Cheri McLain and Amy Schaefer, who are affiliated with RACE and Humane Society of the United States, and Anita August, information organizer for Withers' local animal-support group, Paws-Ability. McLain and Schafer are HSUS volunteers but were not present at the meeting to act on behalf of the HSUS, said Kimberley Alboum, HSUS North Carolina state director of state affairs.

The hour-and-a-half-long recording consists of Rabon telling the group that House Bill 930 — known as the puppy-mill bill — is not a good bill and was being illegally promoted by Gov. Pat McCrory and McCrory’s wife Ann as “feel-good” legislation.

Rabon also called house members, who approved the bill last year, “a bunch of (expletive).”

“They’ve got political heat,” Rabon told the group. “They say, ‘We can no longer sit on this. We know the senate won’t pass this because it’s a piece of crap, so we will send it to them and they will take the heat.’ Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Politics 101 … ‘Let them get their butts kicked.’”


Senators’ statements

Rabon did not respond to repeated efforts by the Beacon to reach him for comment.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, Paula Fields, Rabon’s assistant at his Senate office in Raleigh, told the Beacon all questions regarding the puppy-mill bill and the Jan. 16 meeting are being referred to Apocada’s office.

Berger’s office issued a news release Jan. 28 on Rabon’s behalf.

“Earlier today, I reached out to Gov. Pat McCrory, First Lady Ann McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and House Minority Leader Larry Hall to apologize for comments I made during what I was led to believe was an off-the-record conversation about the prospects for a puppy mill bill in the upcoming legislative session,” Rabon is quoted in the release.

“While I spoke out of frustration in the heat of the moment, it does not excuse what I said or how I said it. My comments were both inappropriate and offensive, and I am sincerely sorry.

“As a veterinarian, my life’s work has been caring for pets and helping them lead happy, healthy lives. I will continue to work to protect the welfare of dogs and make sure they are treated humanely.”

“It is wrong to secretly record private conversations with members of the General Assembly and then threaten to expose those conversations to the media to force legislators to meet specific demands,” Apocada is quoted in his release issued Jan. 27 by Berger’s office.

“That is nothing short of political extortion and represents a new low in lobbying for legislative action. To dignify those actions by moving ahead on this issue would set a dangerous precedent while condoning and encouraging these unethical tactics. It would create a chilling effect on the ability of legislators to have candid and honest dialogues with their constituents on the merits of potential legislation.”


‘You decide’

Withers said the recording of the meeting was intended to be used to give Rabon’s viewpoint instead of allowing others in attendance to give a slanted version of what was said. The group released copies of the recording to news media outlets, but did not threaten Rabon with them.

“Eighty percent or better of the citizens of North Carolina want puppy mill legislation,” she said. “What right does one senator have to prevent it from being heard? It was not our fault that this senator showed a total lack of integrity or social grace in this meeting. Now that you can hear the words for yourself, you decide if this is the type of person you want to represent you in Raleigh.”

Withers charged the North Carolina Senate is using the situation to conveniently table a vote on puppy-mill legislation.

“Sen. Rabon is one of them,” she said. “To make themselves look better, they almost have to stand by him, but we don’t have to accept this as acceptable.”

Withers said the upcoming election in November will give voters an opportunity to decide who should represent them.

“It is our vote that will give them power or send them home,” she said. “Do you trust the political process? Do you find it distasteful that the tape exists, or do you find what is on the tape distasteful?”


‘Flagrant violation’

At the Jan. 16 meeting, Rabon told the advocates House Bill 930 is not a good bill.

“I am not at all impressed with the House bill,” Rabon said. “I don’t like their bill. I don’t appreciate their methodology. I do not side with the governor at all on this particular bill.”

He said the bill came through the House without being vetted and was bullied out of committee by the executive branch, which has “absolutely no business sticking its nose in the legislature on that sort of issue. For the governor to want a particular piece of legislation because the first lady wants it or because he wants it personally, to me, is a flagrant violation of power.”

Rabon told the group he didn’t think the bill would pass the Senate’s short session this year and that it was not on the agenda.

“Angels in heaven cannot make that bill pass,” he said.

Speaking in a louder tone, Rabon added, “They can’t pass that bill because it’s not going to be passed in the House or Senate before that bill dies. Listen to me, folks, get this passion out of your heart and listen to me, please.

“We will get you something that is better,” Rabon said.

Withers told Rabon that is something he has been saying for the last four years.


Prior statements

Rabon’s remarks contradict statements he made late last year.

In an interview with the Beacon this past December, Rabon said House Bill 930 was eligible to be discussed in the Senate’s short session this May.

Rabon added a Senate meeting on this particular issue was scheduled this past Dec. 3, the day he contacted the Beacon with an update.

“They’re going to come up with a plan,” he said, adding he also met for a couple of hours Dec. 2 with Gov. McCrory.

“I’m optimistic and really happy with the progress,” Rabon said at the time.

He said there was a whole packet dealing with the legislation that would be handled in committee.

Rabon also clarified a quote attributed to him in November in the Greensboro News & Record.

“I said we don’t need to pass feel-good legislation. I was talking about all sorts of things that we passed,” he said.


No regulation in N.C.

Withers said the bill is the third one in five years that has gone to Raleigh. She said the previous two bills were shot down because legislative leaders said they were “too strong.”

Now, they’re being told it’s not strong enough, Withers said.

“This is a five-year compromise,” she said. “Don’t sacrifice good for perfect. Currently, there is no standard for puppy mills in North Carolina. There is nothing to protect these dogs.”

No bill, Withers added, is going to stop all of the animal problems in the state.

“It’s not going to make abuse of animals go away,” she said. “It’s not meant to be a gas chamber bill, a cattery bill — all of these tag-ons are not what the bill is about. The bill is a commercial dog-breeding bill.”

In the last five years, there have been 15 puppy-mill busts in North Carolina, Withers said.

In neighboring states where laws have been implemented, there have been significantly fewer or none, she said.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” Withers said.


‘Little respect’

RACE president Cheri McLain said she attended the Jan. 16 meeting with Rabon hoping to convince him to support House Bill 930 because it is a start toward protection for puppy-mill dogs that have zero protection in North Carolina.

“All I want is standard living conditions — food, shelter, water, vet care,” she said. “We currently have none of those laws.”

Instead, she said she came away with the impression Rabon was not interested in the group’s concerns and that he is a powerful man with “little respect for his constituents.”

“His language in a roomful of women proved that much to me,” she said. “I’m not as worried about the puppy mill bill as much as I am worried about the lack of respect or concern about what the voters want to see happen on this and many more issues.”

Fellow veterinarian

Calabash veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, who also attended the Jan. 16 meeting with Rabon, said a lack of laws for commercial dog breeding in this state has led to North Carolina becoming a favored location for some of the worst puppy mills in the country.

“HB 930 simply seeks to prevent puppy mill animal cruelty in North Carolina,” Ward wrote this week in an email response to the Beacon, adding the bill deserves to be voted on after it garnered support in the state House and from the governor.

“This is a fight I’ve been involved with for many, many years — and one I’m not going to back down from,” Ward added.

“This is the third compromise bill submitted to N.C. lawmakers over the past five years. Each bill is a little weaker, but we must give law enforcement basic tools to prevent dogs from living in feces, in the freezing cold, and enduring painful medical conditions. The current bill simply uses the AKC basic standards of care. We must start somewhere,” Ward wrote. “Puppies don’t know politics. Puppies only know suffering. This bill can help end their suffering.

“The thought that the well-being of puppies is being used in back-room political games is disturbing,” Ward added. “This is an animal welfare issue, not a political debate. The humane treatment of dogs used in commercial breeding facilities transcends partisanship. Citizens deserve to hear their voice heard by elected officials. Regardless of opinion, voters should be treated respectfully and professionally by legislators.”

Puppy mills are more common in North Carolina than many people think, Ward said.

HSUS and the N.C. Department of Agriculture estimate there are 200 to 250 puppy mills operating in North Carolina.

“I've seen too many puppies with genetic, medical, and behavioral problems — the direct result of being raised in horrific conditions.” Ward said. “Most people who purchase a puppy-mill puppy aren’t aware the precious life they hold was raised in a puppy mill until it’s too late.

“As a veterinarian, I took an oath to prevent animal suffering; HB 930 helps me and other animal advocates protect those that can’t help themselves,” he added. 

Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.