A lawsuit alleging illegal spending of Pork Checkoff money is moving forward, following a federal appeals court decision. Iowa hog farmer Harvey Dillenburg along with the Humane Society of the United States and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an environmental group, sued U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over what they say is inappropriate use of checkoff dollars. The way the pork checkoff program is set up, ultimate responsibility rests with USDA, says HSUS attorney Matthew Penzer. That's to ensure that money pork producers are obligated to contribute—right now it's 40 cents per $100—doesn’t get used for partisan issues. "They gave the secretary the strict responsibility to ensure this money is just used for generic promotion," Penzer said. That promotional work is conducted by the National Pork Board. Lobbying on behalf of the pork industry falls to the National Pork Producers Council. But the lawsuit alleges that the Pork Board has been paying the Producers Council $3 million per year to license use of the trademarked, though now mothballed, slogan "Pork: the Other White Meat." After a lower court rejected the case, Penzer said the appeals court decision acknowledges the suit's claims are plausible. "This money has been misused and that the misuse of this money is detrimental to Mr. Dillenburg and all producers," Penzer said. "And we’ve also alleged that it’s being used for improper purposes that is harmful to animals and to the environment." Penzer said the burden will be on USDA and the Pork Board to explain:
- Why the Pork Board is continuing to pay for the use of a slogan it is no longer using
- Why the price for that use is $3 million a year when, according to allegations in the court documents, the Pork Board's own economist said the price tag should be no more than $375,000.
"The question has to be asked, is this deal really about something else?" Penzer said, "because that's not what you see in an arm's length [business] transaction." Rather, the case alleges, it's a sweetheart deal that illegally funnels producer dollars collected through the mandatory checkoff program into lobbying efforts. In response to the decision, USDA released the following written statement:
The Court of Appeal's decision was based on a procedural issue, and does not address the basic issue in the case that the assessments and expenditures by the National Pork Board were proper. USDA and DOJ [Department of Justice] will be reviewing the court's decision to determine how to proceed in defending the case. Because the case is in active litigation, we do not want to comment on the substance of the issues, but those will be laid out in our pleadings in the litigation.
There’s an irony in the marketing here. The Pork Board dropped “Pork: The Other White Meat,” and replaced it with “Pork: Be Inspired.” Apparently, producer Dillenburg felt inspired… to demand his checkoff contributions were being spent appropriately. "The [checkoff] programs have the power to do a lot of good or a lot of harm," Penzer said, "and the difference is whether or not the funds are spent lawfully."