The language was bellicose, the atmosphere hostile. The statements, sometimes hypocritical.
With less than 24 hours’ public notice, US Rep. David Rouzer convened a “National Agriculture Leaders Roundtable” at the state fairgrounds on Friday morning. To a room packed with contract swine growers, representatives from the USDA, farming interest groups and state elected officials — including several from out-of-state — blamed Smithfield’s continued legal defeats on the media, environmentalists, lawyers and “biased” US District Court Judge Earl Britt.
“We need to change the statutes and stop [the trial lawyers] from spreading like cancer in the country,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, among whose main campaign contributors is McGuireWoods, the firm defending Smithfield in the nuisance suits. “I hope we can put them out of a job.”
Putting trial lawyers in the unemployment line, though, could hurt one of Rouzer’s main campaign contributors: the political action committee of Rountree and Losee, whose website boasts that the firm’s “litigation attorneys are true trial lawyers.”
The National Pork Producers Council, Prestage Farms and the NC Farm Bureau are also major contributors to Rouzer.
It is true that the contract growers will be hurt as Smithfield Foods continues to lose nuisance lawsuits filed against it. But the world’s largest pork producer is not being forced to pull its pigs from these farms; it is choosing to, rather than address the nuisance caused by the open-pit waste lagoons and sprayfield systems.
However, throughout the 90-minute venting session, roundtable participants lodged several allegations that were either not true or lacked context. Policy Watch factchecked the statements and is reporting their veracity here.
The gag order
Sen. Thom Tillis and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation: Farmers are under a gag order. “We have to be a voice for them.”
Needs context: There is a gag order, but it does not apply to every hog farmer in North Carolina.
In early July, US District Court Senior Judge Early Britt issued a gag order prohibiting people associated with cases — plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys, potential witnesses, and court personnel — from speaking with the media about any information that is not part of the public record. The intent, Britt said in his order, was to avoid tainting future jury pools with “extrajudicial” information.
Sen. Tillis: “Trial lawyers are going back to their mansions and not caring [about the farmers.]”
Misleading: Presumably trial lawyers do live in nice homes, and Michael Kaeske did own a mansion in Dallas, according Dallas magazine. However, Smithfield executives are paid even more handsomely.
According to Securities and Exchange filings and company reports, Wan Long, the CEO of WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield, earned $291 million in salary and stock options last year. When C. Larry Pope retired in 2015, his payout was $25 million. He was ranked No. 86 on the Forbes list of wealthiest CEOs. In 2014, he was scheduled to earn a $46 million payout (see page 62) as part of the WH Group’s purchase of the company. Four other top executives were projected to receive a combined $54 million merger-related income.
By comparison, many of Smithfield’s contract growers net less than $50,000 a year.
Rep. Jimmy Dixon: “Your [Policy Watch’s] tweet that Joey Carter’s farm had a complaint is untrue.”
False: A document from 1985 showed that three Duplin County neighbors did indeed complain about Carter’s expansion of his hog farm. The lagoon, the USDA report read, would be 850 feet from one home, and 1,500 feet from 11 others. One neighbor had planned to sell residential lots on land he owned; the lagoon would be adjacent to the acreage.
“Discussed the problems that might be caused by neighbor’s complaints in future with Joey,” an entry dated March 4, 1985, reads, “but he is determined to proceed.”
On May 7, 1985, an entry reads, “Joey said he has heard that his neighbors plan to sue him for damaging their property values.”
The jury in the second trial didn’t see this document because it had not been produced via a public records request. The defense did have the document, though, but did not provide it until after the plaintiffs had rested their case.