Abuse of Power: FSIS meat inspector accused of targeting small plants

A number of legislators are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate a front-line supervisor in the Food Safety and Inspection Service for allegedly abusing his power and targeting Montana’s small meat packers.

Following two articles in the Montana Standard, where editor David McCumber shared 12 years of history involving apparent harassment by a federal supervisory inspector of some of the state’s small meat plants, and even an admission of guilt by the inspector himself, Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte said there should be consequences for the egregious conduct.

In a letter to Carmen Rottenberg, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food and Safety, Gianforte called for an investigation into the department’s practices and specifically of FSIS front-line supervisor Jeffrey Legg.

“My constituents have described a series of wanton abuses from this out-of-control bureaucrat,” wrote Gianforte. “These family businesses have filed numerous complaints with FSIS after Dr. Legg imposed on them outrageous compliance costs for regulations that do not exist. When confronted about his enforcement of self-created regulations, Legg retaliated against them.”

Gianforte continued, “It is unacceptable for federal bureaucrats to target family businesses. This pattern of behavior has lasted for over 15 years.”

The targeting has been a nightmare, according to Bart Riley, who owns Riley’s Meats, a small meat processing plant in Butte, MT, founded in 1949, by Riley’s grandfather.

“We’ve had no problems until this Dr. Legg showed up,” Riley said of the 70 plus years of business.

Riley, along with other processing plants, have filed numerous complaints over the years, about Legg’s compliance requests and costs, for regulations that do not exist. The complaints were often met with retaliation from Legg himself, and more fabricated regulations, Riley said, in addition to no action from FSIS.

“They backed him on every single thing he did. They said there was not proof,” Riley said following a number of his complaints. “They didn’t even call me for my side of the story.”

Noncompliance Records or NRs are violations issued by “inspection program personnel.” In each of the last three quarters, FSIS inspectors have handed out between 25,500 and 27,700 NRs.

Riley, and other processors began questioning a quota motive after Legg began issuing 100 to 150 NRs per year, individually.

The quota challenge is not new to the industry, but FSIS Administrator Al Almanza denied the claims in 2008.

“I’d say that’s false,” he said. “..We are not going to order or direct any of our inspectors on any number of NRs to be documented on a day, a month, etc.”

Legg’s loose interpretations of regulations were so common that they became referred to as “Legg’s Regs.”

“Legg’s Regs have frustrated small meat packers across Montana and North Dakota and have severely impacted their operation to the point many have considered shutting down or scaling back plans to expand their plants,” Gianforte wrote in his letter.

“Following a tour of one processing plant, Legg instructed the business owner to build an office for federal inspectors. Legg advised the office should be at least 8’x10’ with a locking door, a heat source, a desk, and a file cabinet. No such regulation exists for processing plants. Legg instructed the owner to refurbish the basement with new concrete, though no business was conducted there. No such regulation exists.”

Legg told meat plants they could not use wooden pallets and would need to replace them with plastic ones, which again, was not a regulation. Riley’s determination to put end what he believes is a NR quota, left him a target.

“I became the main target. (Legg) told a number of inspectors that he wanted me out of business,” Riley said.

Former Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg announced he is running for the upcoming Republican primary election for the U.S. Senate, and in his first announcement speech, he spoke at length about FSIS’ and Legg’s overreach.

“For 12 years they’ve seen it firsthand: the overreach and the bureaucracy and the unfair circumstances that are brought down on a little Butte business that’s been here for 80 or 90 years,” Fagg said.

Even Legg’s superiors acknowledged there was a problem, but there was never any action taken, according to Riley.

In 2008, Riley received a letter from FSIS saying that an internal review had found at least six allegations of willful harassment and intentional acts to intimidate or torment Riley were substantiated, and seven more were either partially confirmed or possibly true. But in the letter, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator added that no action against Legg was needed.

Montana’s Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner, Jim Fisher, joined in on the complaints, calling on an investigation of Legg.

In a Sept. 28 letter, Fisher asks that fellow commissioners and Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer draft letters to U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue “voicing concerns over the harassment of small business owners” in Butte.

“I suggest we ask for a complete investigation of Dr. Legg’s actions in the willful harassment of our local business owners.”

FSIS did not respond to TSLN’s request for comment.