Business

State official pleads guilty in Butterball farm raid leak

Posted February 15, 2012 11:31 a.m. EST
Updated February 16, 2012 7:10 a.m. EST

— 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.

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.