To The Point

Investigative Reporting, Bull & Baloney.

When I was about 10 my grandmother taught me that you never, ever write anything down that you don’t want to come back and haunt you. Clearly as a working adult I haven’t heeded that advice as well as I might have, but I can assure you that in my personal dealings that is the letter of the law.

When I was in journalism school at the University of Arizona we learned that it is not a good idea to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Never did I imagine that I might be blessed enough to have my own “barrel of ink.” And as I embark on this column, I feel lucky that the Internet and social media have made it possible for everyone to write everything down that ever comes into their head – and distribute it to literally the world without ever imagining the consequences of such “free speech.”

Jobs have been lost or maybe never offered, relationships ruined, and no telling what mayhem because someone was careless enough to hit “send” or “post” or “share” without first considering what the outcome could be now and forever. I bear all of this in mind as I continue. The word, written or spoken, has never been so diluted nor so powerful as it is today.

Every media outlet has its’ own gimmick . . . Local, Live, Late Breaking, Eyewitness News, Pinpoint Weather Forecast, Breaking News and so on. They are all designed to get you to watch their newscasts and/or to follow them on the web, on your iPhone or your iPad or whatever “smart” device you use to keep up with current events. I realize that this last sentence may be Greek to many of you, but those explanations are for another day.

One Albuquerque television station hangs its hat on “investigative” reporting. I must admit that I get some entertainment watching some elected official or bureaucrat be chased down a hall with a television camera nipping at their heels – and some days around here, entertainment is at a premium.

We all shudder at the thought of a call from Investigator Guy. A few years ago he wanted to do a report on cattle theft. It took working up some courage to return the call and many cajoling phone calls to get a rancher to let him visit an operation. In the end it all turned out well and there is video footage in the archieves of Investigator Guy and Brian Greene riding through the pasture near Mountainair.

When I explained why folks were hesitant to open their doors to Investigator Guy, he assured me that he had no desire to take on the livestock industry in New Mexico, one of the true economic engines of the state for centuries.

I guess he, along with most of the rest of the world, has forgotten not only which side his bread is buttered on, but where the bread and butter come from. I hope he will appreciate the need for this writer to tell “the rest of the story.”

About midway through Legislature late on a Friday afternoon, while working the halls at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Convention in Nashville, I get the OH NO! email. Investigator Guy wants to talk to me and he has provided me his cell phone number. The issue was meat inspection.

After a few recon phone calls back home to get some briefing and to develop my message, I finally found the courage to return the call. It seems that someone had turned Investigator Guy on to a completely egregious situation (not). He had been told that the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB) was bilking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of New Mexicans by charging a $100 per year licensing fee even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had taken over meat inspection duties in 2007. Investigator Guy and the source that had ginned him up took the position (not a reporter’s perogitive) that licensing and inspection are linked. Apparently neither of them actually read the law which is quite clear:

77-17-2. Licenses; butcher or slaughterer; dealer in fresh meat or livestock or poultry meat products or meat from other birds and animals used for human consumption; cold storage locker; rendering plant.

A. A person carrying on or desiring to carry on the business of butcher or slaughterer of livestock used for human consumption shall procure a license from the board prior to carrying on the business and shall pay a yearly license fee not to exceed one hundred dollars ($100).

B. In addition, such person may be charged reasonable fees for meat inspection service over and above the inspector’s normal working assignment under the rules of the board pertaining to meat inspection.

C. Application for licensure shall be made upon a form prescribed by the board and shall be accompanied by the amount of the license fee provided in this section. The license fee shall not be prorated on account of the applicant doing business for less than a full calendar year, and the license renewal fee in the same amount shall be paid for each calendar year in which any person engages in the business and be paid at the time prescribed by rules of the board.

D. A person carrying on or desiring to carry on the business of selling or dealing in the fresh meat or meat products of livestock used for human consumption or livestock or poultry meat products or manufacturing or processing of meat or poultry products or operating a rendering plant or operating a cold storage locker plant in which cold storage lockers are rented or leased to other persons shall obtain a license to engage in the business from the board after making application upon forms prescribed by the board and upon payment of an annual license fee in an amount set by the board not to exceed one hundred dollars ($100). Annual renewal fees are payable at times prescribed by rule of the board. No bond or bond filing fee is required for any person

E. Licenses provided for in this section shall not be issued to a person who is not meeting the requirements for facilities and product handling provided for in the federal and state meat inspection acts and United States department of agriculture food safety inspection service and board rules. For good cause shown, the board may, after notice to the holder of a license provided for in this section and after a reasonable hearing, revoke a license.

As you can see, the statute clearly states that is the duty and responsibility to collect the prescribe fee. Just as clearly the fee applies to “federal and state meat inspection.” So where is the crime?

And about those hundreds of thousands of dollars . . . according to Investigator Guy himself, there are about 1,000 businesses in New Mexico who obtain meat licenses from the NMLB. That amounts to approximately $100,000 per year. From 2007 to 2012, which is barely half over by the state fiscal calendar, there has been about $500,000 collected. With a state budget in the billions and the federal government in the hole by trillions is there real value in spending weeks on a story that amounts to $100,000 per year?

Those are just the first questions to come to mind. On the back side, Investigator Guy couldn’t find even one meat license holder willing to go on camera to complain about the fee — at least he didn’t run them with his report. The only complaining person, according to his report, was one Livestock Board member who wasn’t even brave enough to be named. If this is such a bad situation why wasn’t that Board member’s mug on television?

I know for a fact that Investigator Guy talked to industry people, including this writer, who gave the other side of the story. Where was that in the “investigative report?”

If you missed it, Investigator Guy did a lot of show promos showing cattle eating, himself holding coils of meat (baloney) and talked about a lot of bull going on. During the report he had on-camera interviews with the Executive Director of the Livestock Board, Governor Martinez’ chief of staff, the President Pro Tem o the State Senate and the Minority Floor leader. All these interviews were done during the heat of the Session and I seriously doubt that anyone other than Myles Culbertson was extremely familiar with the statute. All of the others said pretty much the same thing. If there was a fee being charged with no service offered, then the statute should be looked at.

So let’s talk about what service might be attached to that meat license. The NMLB has the ONLY list of meat dealers in the state. The responsibility of keeping that list, via licensure is not assigned to the Health Department or the Environment Department. By law the Livestock Board must do it. Isn’t there value for the meat dealers as well as the general public to be able to identify and locate these dealers in the event of a meat borne illness?

Investigator Guy didn’t think so. I know this because I asked him. He assumes someone else is responsible for food safety. He failed to note that the New Mexico Livestock Board has been protecting the livestock industry and the public for 125 years.

Then there is the whole other question of funding for the NMLB. Over the past few decades their role has expanded well beyond livestock theft and health. Livestock inspectors spend an incredible amount of time on animal cruelty cases. A complete investigation is required if someone drives by a pasture and sees a thin horse.

If, in fact, an animal is being abused, then by all means there should be an investigation and prosecution. But how often is that thin horse the result of 20 or 30 years of service who is being allowed to live out its last days — with no teeth — in a pasture resting? How often are reports just malicious “mischief” from those who would do their neighbors or livestock owners harm by filing an abuse report?

The majority of the funding for the NMLB comes from the livestock inspection fees that are presently statutorily capped. Unfortunately, costs of operation – fuel, trucks, wages, insurance and so on, are not capped.

Perhaps the funds from meat inspection are currently assisting in the performance of all the tasks assigned of the Livestock Board. But what would be the cost of just one meat borne disease outbreak? That $500,000 and then some could be used up in a heartbeat.

Finally, if Investigator Guy has been tipped off to a big story that could only be addressed by the Legislature, why did his story run on the day the Session adjourned? That was two weeks after he talked to me. One might wonder when sweeps week was?

There is no doubt that Investigator Guy often does the public a service by uncovering injustices and misuses. But from now on I will probably dig a little deeper before I take the story at only face value. It really is pretty easy to turn nothing into “a lot of baloney” or a “bunch of bull.”

For a minimum of $75

The in-depth knowledge required to know when something is wrong as just described is only one of the functions the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) is called upon to provide on a daily basis. The office fields a wide variety of calls on a daily basis ranging from members of the public to the news media. There requests are just as varied ranging from feral hog hunting to where to buy New Mexico beef to how to register a brand to the guy who called and told me I need to tell the truth about the Mexican wolf program.

There are a fair amount of folks who call the NMCGA office thinking it is a state-funded group who are bound to serve every public need. Every attempt is made to address each of calls with courtesy and as much information as possible.

What most people don’t know or maybe care about is that the NMCGA is funded with membership dues dollars. Without dues paying members, the Association cannot provide the staff and resources for this kind of assistance. As a guess, I would say that about a third of the calls are from people who are not members.

The temptation is to first ask, have you paid your dues? With the wolf critic, I will admit, that is the question I asked. Of course, he wasn’t. He is a developer from Texas who claimed to be a “small rancher” in New Mexico. He didn’t tell me all of that. This is another place the Internet comes in handy. I will admit that the call was terminated shortly after he answered NO to the membership question. n