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Why Is a Corruption Watchdog Doing Corporations' Dirty Work Going After an Obscure USDA Official?

CREW has an admirable record on exposing corrupt politicians, but it has also intervened in a high-stakes fight on the side of corporations.

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In a separate statement, CREW expanded upon the claims made in the letter to Silverman, citing an article about Butler from Beef magazine, a publication funded by the meatpacking industry, and an op-ed by former Rep. Bob Barr, a lawyer and lobbyist who represents a meatpacker. As with its intervention in the student-loan dispute, CREW relied on sources with an interest in minimizing new regulation.

In a speech to OCM in August 2009, Butler described the current statutes as a "plaintiff lawyer's dream." The comment was reported in Beef magazine as evidence Butler was using his government position to favor trial lawyers -- a fear Sloan echoed when she repeated the quotations in her letter to Silverman. Sloan didn't note that Steve Kay, who wrote about the speech for Beef, has a conflict of his own -- Kay, also the editor of Cattle Buyer's Weekly , provides consulting services to the livestock industry. Stokes, who was present for the speech, says Butler meant exactly the opposite of how the comment was spun.

"[The article] purposely ignored Butler's contrast between conditions as they presently exist in the marketplace, which Butler said creates such uncertainty as to be 'a lawyer’s dream, a plaintiff lawyer's dream,' and how those conditions could be corrected with a rule that removes uncertainty by defining the perimeters of unlawful livestock procurement practices -- which, obviously, would significantly reduce the potential for litigation," Stokes says. A complete recording of the remark, placed online by Stokes' organization, supports that interpretation.

The op-ed by former Congressman Barr, a Republican from Georgia, also quoted Beef to argue that Butler was attempting to use agricultural regulation to enrich trial lawyers. Barr's arguments were picked up by right-wing bloggers to attack the new rules, but Barr did not reveal his own conflict of interest: He currently represents Sholom Rubashkin, whose now-defunct firm, Agriprocessors, came under GIPSA scrutiny after it failed to pay farmers. Rubashkin received a 27-year sentence after being convicted of bank fraud while managing Agriprocessors. When contacted, Barr's firm said the former congressman had been retained by Rubashkin to assist in post-conviction matters.

"If groups have to trump up evidence of Butler's bias by distorting what he said, or turn to internet slumdogs to get their point across, then they have failed in making their argument," respected agriculture reporter Chris Clayton wrote of the episode.

Acting USDA General Counsel Silverman responded to CREW's letter, explaining that the regulations were intended to limit legal uncertainty, not create opportunities for lawsuits. A group of 25 major family-farm organizations in the United States also sent an open letter to CREW’s board asking it to change its position.

"Many of the statements made by CREW in its letter to USDA's General Counsel are misleading or demonstrably false and we urge an immediate retraction," the letter reads. "Moreover, many of CREW's allegations and even language are disturbingly similar to changes leveled by the meatpacker, hog processor and poultry industry. […] When CREW adopts the language, rhetoric and tactics of a special interest group in the guise of objective and non-partisan disclosure it belittles the efforts of all good-government groups."

Representatives of CREW refused to comment for this article, citing objections to the Prospect's previous coverage of potential conflicts of interest at the organization. CREW will not say whether it consulted with independent experts on agricultural regulatory issues, and, because CREW does not reveal its funders, whether the organization has a financial conflict of interest.

Once again, CREW has intervened in a high-stakes policy dispute, on the side of large corporations that benefit from the status quo. The organization has called for a federal official to remove himself from the rule-making process at the heart of his job based on an out-of-context quotation and arguments from industry advocates and lobbyists with their own conflicts of interest. It seems far removed from the organization's mission, and raises even more complicated questions about how the voices of the already powerful gain influence in Washington.

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