Ag Policy Blog

Court Allows R-CALF USA to Sue State Beef Councils

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
A federal judge in Montana allowed R-CALF USA to sut at least thirteen state beef councils. (DTN file photo)

The federal district court in Montana granted the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers (R-CALF USA) a motion to expand its beef checkoff program lawsuit to include at least 13 states in addition to Montana, R-CALF USA said in a news release Tuesday.

“The district court in Montana previously granted, and the appellate court recently upheld, a preliminary injunction temporarily stopping the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from violating the U.S. Constitution by compelling cattle producers in Montana to pay for the private speech of the private Montana Beef Council without first obtaining consent from producers,” R-CALF USA explained in the release.

R-CALF USA, which prides itself on a membership of only cattle producers, asked the court to expand the case to include additional states in which producers are similarly required “to pay for the private speech of their respective private beef councils without their consent,” the release said.

Today’s ruling on R-CALF USA’s motion does not apply the temporary injunction in effect in Montana to the additional states. Instead, it allows R-CALF USA to proceed with its original case in which it seeks a permanent injunction against the USDA for violating the Constitution. If successful, the permanent injunction would likely cover cattle producers in each of the new states, R-CALF explained.

The court granted the USDA 14 days to file an answer to the complaint, and the case now proceeds with the additional states.

Under the preliminary injunction in effect in Montana, cattle producers can individually decide if they want half the mandatory assessments collected from them to be spent by the private Montana Beef Council or all of it sent to the beef checkoff program’s Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), where it is subject to governmental fiscal controls.

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said the state beef councils have been sending about $10 million in checkoff funds each year directly to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a political lobbying group, to fund that group’s Federation of State Beef Councils, and those monies are not subject to the same fiscal controls imposed on the CBB.

“By redirecting their money to the CBB rather than to their state beef councils, cattle producers can reduce the amount of money now flowing to the NCBA under the group's pay-to-play scheme, which we believe is a form of money laundering,” said Bullard.

Bullard added that if R-CALF USA’s lawsuit is successful, cattle producers in Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin will all have their constitutional rights protected and will no longer be compelled to subsidize private or corporate speech.

Attorneys for R-CALF USA include lead counsel David Muraskin, a Food Project Attorney at Public Justice, J. Dudley Butler, of the Farm and Ranch Law Group, and Bill Rossbach of Rossbach Law, P.C. in Missoula, Mont.

The NCBA, which has a broader membership, said the court decision is “a disappointment to countless beef producers and NCBA members across America”

“The phony allegations being perpetuated by R-CALF and its activist legal partners are without merit and only serve to divide beef producers and distract beef councils from the important work of building demand for our products,” the group said.

“The simple fact is that regular audits of the beef checkoff and NCBA have found both to be compliant with the laws governing the checkoff,” said NCBA Chief Executive Officer Kendal Frazier.

“Two audits conducted by USDA’s Office of the Inspector General have also come back clean. R-CALF’s accusations to the contrary are false,” Frazier said. “R-CALF has become nothing more than a front group for activists seeking to divide the industry, lessen beef demand and drive producers out of business.”

“Accusations that dollars invested in the Federation of State Beef Councils are being misused are equally false,” NCBA said.

“NCBA has a longstanding commitment to the beef checkoff and the state beef councils, whose collections and demand-building work pre-date the federal checkoff. NCBA is firm in its commitment to defend both the checkoff and state beef councils against outside attacks. The volunteer cattlemen and cattlewomen who serve on state beef council boards are committed to improving the beef business and demand for our products and they do not deserve the attacks being leveled by these activist groups.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated that these attacks by R-CALF are being aided by allies at the Humane Society of the United States, Food and Water Watch, Public Justice and other activist organizations that stand against cattlemen and women. These groups know that beef demand is increasing in the United States and abroad, in part due to work funded by the checkoff. These achievements make the beef checkoff and other agriculture industry self-help mechanisms a target for organizations and individuals driving a vegetarian agenda.

“It’s unfortunate that R-CALF has chosen to become a puppet in the war being waged by animal rights activists and the vegetarians seeking to drive beef producers out of business. Let’s be clear, though, the groups aligning with R-CALF are choosing a future with shrinking beef demand, less opportunity and more government involvement,” said Frazier.

“That’s not the future NCBA members choose, so we will defend the beef checkoff and cattle producers against these attacks.”

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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