Governor wants to out those hired to film animal cruelty

A bill drawn up by Republican Gov. Paul LePage would make public the names of animal activists hired to film undercover footage of animal cruelty.

An adviser to LePage said this week that the governor's bill would prevent "unwarranted political attacks" by letting businesses know "if the person has a history of undercover filming operations."

"It is very easy for a person with a video camera to film things completely out of context and make a business or organization look bad in the public eye even when the business could be doing everything in accordance with the law and best practices," Lance Libby, senior policy adviser for LePage, said in written testimony.

Last summer, The Humane Society of the United States released undercover footage taken by an employee that it said showed "massive piles of dead chickens" at New England's largest egg-producing farm, Hillandale Farms in Turner, but the state later concluded there was no proof to pursue animal cruelty charges.

In a December letter to Maine's congressional delegation, LePage called the Humane Society's complaint "frivolous" and said his office would ask lawmakers to change Maine law to release the identities of "political operatives."

LePage claims that a Humane Society operative got a job at the farm to manufacture phony cruelty claims and bolster support for a farm animal treatment campaign in Massachusetts. Katie Hansberry, the Maine lobbyist for the Humane Society, said that a farm employee contacted the organization after witnessing neglect and that the group complained to the state days before releasing footage taken by an investigator.

The names of anyone who provides the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry with information about animal cruelty are currently confidential in Maine. LePage's bill would maintain that law but release the names and identifying information of anyone who's hired to film or record animal cruelty by an entity that provides the state with such information.

Hansberry said that hens are being confined in "intensive confinement and cruelty" and that LePage's bill would hurt the public by discouraging and hampering investigations into industrial farms and puppy mills.

The governor's bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner, who told The Associated Press that "whistleblowers" shouldn't be protected if they go to the media and should be "held responsible" for damage they cause.

Both LePage and Timberlake have received at least $1,000 apiece in contributions from Iowa egg executive Jack DeCoster, his wife and Contract Farming of Maine LLC, which is associated with DeCoster. DeCoster owns the Turner facility but is not involved in "any way in the operation of the farm," said Hillandale Farms spokeswoman Melanie Wilt.

In 2010, an undercover video of conditions at the Turner facility — then called Maine Contract Farming and owned by the DeCoster family — shot by another animal welfare group led to a settlement in which the farm paid $25,000 in fines and made a $100,000 one-time payment to the state.

Contaminated eggs from DeCoster's Iowa company caused a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010, and in July, a federal appeals court upheld three-month jail sentences for DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster. Efforts to reach DeCoster and his wife were unsuccessful, and LePage's office didn't immediately comment Wednesday.

Timberlake said he gets lots of donations from people who live in Turner and said DeCoster now "has nothing to do with" the Turner egg facility.