Business

State official pleads guilty in Butterball farm raid leak

Posted February 15, 2012
Updated February 16, 2012

— The state's top poultry veterinarian pleaded guilty Wednesday to tipping off officials at Butterball before a December raid on one of its turkey operations in Hoke County.

Garner-based Butterball said five current and former workers have been charged with animal cruelty in the case. Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said more arrests are expected. 

"(We are) looking at more subjects as we speak," Peterkin said. 

An undercover investigator for an animal rights group videotaped workers at a Butterball farm in Shannon abusing turkeys and leaving injured birds untended. That prompted a Dec. 29 raid by Hoke County deputies to determine whether animal cruelty charges were warranted.

Six days earlier, Hoke County investigators contacted the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for advice about how to proceed. Within hours, Dr. Sarah Mason, director of animal health programs in the department's Poultry Division, contacted Dr. Eric Gonder, a veterinarian for Butterball, to relay the information.

According to a search warrant, Mason first denied contacting Gonder but admitted it only after investigators told her Gonder had already identified her as the person who informed him of the raid. Gonder then passed the information to managers of the Shannon farm.

Mason met with Hoke County investigators Wednesday, and they filed misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice and resisting, delaying or obstructing officers. She immediately pleaded guilty to the charges and received a 45-day jail sentence, which was suspended to a year on probation.

"It is vital that law enforcement be able to rely on other government agencies and their employees to safeguard confidential information that must be shared during a criminal investigation," Hoke County District Attorney Kristy Newton said in a statement.

"It is unfortunate that Dr. Mason chose to breach the level of trust that her fellow public officials and the people of North Carolina placed in her when she released confidential information that could have potentially undermined an ongoing criminal investigation and then lied to police about her conduct," Newton said.

Hoke County turkey farm raided after animal cruelty complaints Six charged following raid on Hoke turkey farm

The agriculture department suspended Mason on Monday for two weeks without pay, following an internal investigation into the incident. State records show that Mason's annual salary is $85,000, so two weeks without pay would cost her $3,269.

Department spokesman Brian Long said the guilty pleas wouldn't affect Mason's employment.

"We have taken our disciplinary action. We knew going in that she could be charged with something," Long said.

Mason also will have to attend a general ethics training course and a second ethics course on departmental relations with regulated businesses. The department has been accused in the past of being too friendly with the businesses it regulates.

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has said that he doesn't think Mason tried to tip off Butterball.

The department said in a statement Wednesday that Mason relayed only information about the undercover video taken at the Shannon farm and that the material had been turned over to Hoke County prosecutors. She wasn't aware of the pending raid and didn't pass any such information along, according to department officials.

"We could not overlook the fact that her actions were wrong, that she made a poor choice," Long said. "She shouldn't have passed anything along. We know that, and she now understands that."

In a statement issued by her attorney last month, Mason said Gonder is a longtime friend and that she called him because she wanted to stop the abuse immediately. She also said no one at the agriculture department had asked her to make the call and that no one else there was aware of her actions.

The agriculture department noted that Mason's solid work record and cooperation with the investigation, as well as the fact that she had nothing to gain from passing information to Gonder, were all factors in her favor in determining her punishment.

Butterball said it fired four workers last month after an internal investigation into the Shannon farm's operations. Three of those workers, along with two workers who are still with the company, face animal cruelty charges.The company said it has suspended the two current employees. 

Former employee Ruben Mendoza and current employee Terry Johnson are among those charged with animal cruelty. 

Butterball employee Jose Garcia is not accused of cruelty, but along with Mendoza is charged with obtaining property by false pretenses and identity theft. Investigators say both are illegally in the country.

Some turkeys found by Hoke County investigators at the farm were in such poor condition that they had to be euthanized.

"Animal care and well-being are central to who Butterball is as a company, and we are committed to the care and well-being of our turkey flocks," the company said in a statement. "We are closely re-evaluating our animal care and well-being policies and practices and have already established several new initiatives ... that reinforce this commitment."

The company said the initiatives include retraining associates on animal care and well-being, elevating animal care and well-being to a position that reports directly to executives and conducting extensive third-party audits by national experts.

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  • kgt Feb 16, 2012

    "People will always eat meat but that doesn't mean the animals should be abused and treated cruelly in the process. Animals provide food and people should at least show them some respect in the process. They shouldn't be kicked, hit, confined to tiny cages, pushed by tractors, electrocuted, thrown against walls, stepped on and so on.
    HereswhatIthink"

    ---

    I agree with you 100 percent. There is no need to be cruel, and no need to reward cruel people.

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    He needs to be prosecuted now. She needs to be prosecuted now. If we keep allowing evil to be done with our tax money it will continue to get worse.

  • wral mods blow close my account Feb 16, 2012

    " Since he did not terminate her then he should face repercussion's also." rroadrunner99

    "OK - she did a bad thing by alerting Butterball. But are there not bigger state employees that need frying?" Zman

    Yes, her boss is AG's commissioner Steve Troxler. You can fire him next election.

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    Actually 2thec that's untrue. Before all the outsourcing and illegal influxing, jobs like this were pretty good. I would have wanted my daughter to start there. It's honest work. The problem now is you can't make a decent living doing honest work. Mexicans and Chinese don't stand up to their government or big business and can't make decent wages in their own countries. Instead of the US bringing our values to them, we let them impose their lack of values, especially regarding labor, on us. Now plain hard work is no longer respected. I guess if you do hard work, you're just scum right?

  • LovemyPirates Feb 16, 2012

    Illegals work in jobs such as these because US citizens do not or will not. How many reading and contributing to this blog would say, "When my daughter/son/granddaughter/grandson grows up, I want her/him to work in the poultry processing industry." My guess is very few. As consumers, we want a steady flow of safe and cheap food but don't want to know how we get it and absolutely don't want to pick, shuck, peal, handle or process it.

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    I don't know enough about the law. Can we the people bring a case against them--against this fraudulence?

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    dabink is my hero. Thanks for your succinctness. Z Man, where should we start. I say we start here because it has the most public support now.

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    I am not on the red or blue team just to let you know. The thing that irks me about this is government officials have been caught. They have done wrong. Are we to assume this is the first instance or just the first instance of them getting caught? I'd argue that the latter is statistically more likely. NOW, they are just rubbing it in our faces.

    They are telling you and I, we WILL take money from your check. You WILL NOT know what we are doing with it and we will defraud you every chance we get. If you think about it, unpaid volunteers with a camera did the real work. Heck let's just pay them what she was making so they can post more videos. That has to bite into Butterball profits once decent people stop buying their food.

  • Sherlock Feb 16, 2012

    Boy this has made the Hoke County Sheriff really famous, he must be going to run for a bigger office, but way not all he knows is how to spend tax money.... This has gone Nation wide now

  • ryderted Feb 16, 2012

    Why is she not fired? Why is she still taking our money? She should be fired NOW! Anyone protecting her should be fired. What precisely do they do with our money? Anyone know or are we just assuming here?

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