Whistleblower gag bill clears Senate Commerce

The measure would prohibit workers from applying for jobs under false pretenses and then use video to document the workplace. Opponents say the measure would preclude investigations by journalists and others.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill that would make it harder for journalists and advocacy groups to investigate factory farms cleared the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday. 

The bill combines several different measures, including limitations on when the attorney general can hire outside lawyers and requiring those hires to be better disclosed.

However, the part of the measure that got the most discussion deals with what its sponsors say is employment fraud.

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said the provision is aimed at protecting intellectual property. For example, Jackson said his farm might use a process for cleaning melons that he believes is superior to processes used by other farmers. 

"I don't want someone coming in and taping our process," he said.

However, opponents of the measure say it would prohibit investigations that uncover examples of animal abuse and the like. For example, a 2011 hidden-video investigation led to the conviction of workers and the state's former top poultry veterinarian. Under this bill, the worker who made those video tapes could be subject to prosecution.

"This is an expansion of government that's not necessary," said Ashley Perkinson, who spoke for the ASPCA and Humane Society. She said businesses already have protections that apply to theft, intellectual property and fraud. 

"This is not a transparency bill," said Matthew Dominguez with the Humane Society of the United States. "These are anti-whistleblower bills." 

At the beginning of the meeting, committee Chairman Rick Gunn announced the bill would be "for discussion only," a signal that no vote would be taken on the bill.

But part of the way through the discussion, Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, declared, "Mr. Chairman, I really like this bill. I don't know why you don't move it forward." 

Gunn, R-Alamance, looked at Apodaca but didn't respond. However, when Apodaca pushed his point, Gunn accepted his motion to send the measure on to a Senate judiciary committee.

The bill cleared the Commerce Committee on a voice vote.

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