News has been spreading about the latest federal appointee to embarrass the Obama administration, J. Dudley Butler. A trial lawyer, Mr. Butler is now serving as the Administrator of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), an agency of the USDA tasked with regulating the trade of poultry, livestock, and other agricultural products.
Prior to his appointment, Mr. Butler worked as a trial lawyer in the Canton, Mississippi “Butler Farms and Ranch Law Group.” His specialty was suing the poultry industry for alleged violations of USDA regulations; these suits met with limited success. In May of 2009, he was picked by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to head the very same agency responsible for those regulations: GIPSA. In a move that should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody, Butler has taken his new position as a mandate to make his once and future profession a far more lucrative one.
Specifically, Butler took the lead in altering Sections 202(a) and (b) of the Packers and Stockyard Act, whittling down the evidence required to establish that “undue preference” has been shown by meat companies in buying from one small producer or another. This translates into an easier and more profitable job for the plaintiff’s attorneys (like Butler) who make a living prosecuting such claims. Indeed, as Beef Magazine recently reported, the GIPSA chief has openly admitted it:
When you have a term like “unfair, unreasonable or undue prejudice,” that’s a plaintiff lawyer’s dream. We can get in front of a jury with that. We won’t get thrown out on what we call summary judgment because that’s a jury question.
Apparently Mr. Butler wasn’t raking in quite enough “real money” under the old rules:
There are only certain things [that are] a violation of the regulation, if you will, written regulation, that they can fine on, I think a maximum is $11,000 that they can fine $11,000 a day, but the real money that you are talking about comes from the section dealing with damages, compensatory damages, to other types of damages that DOJ can either seek or you can seek in a private right of action.
Again, it is Butler and his peers who will be seeking “a private right of action.” To facilitate this, he has accomplished the dual feat of making GIPSA policy more ambiguous and much more burdensome. The American meat industry will have to endure a wave of frivolous lawsuits from jilted suppliers based on rulings that don’t take into account common variances in the quality of their products.
The cost of fighting and protecting against such suits will inevitably be passed down to the consumer. If the thought of Butler’s golden meat-parachute wasn’t bad enough, keep in mind that the 9.6 percent of Americans who are unemployed will find dinner that much more expensive. J. Dudley Butler operates under what is fast becoming the watchword of the Obama administration: if you can’t beat ’em, regulate ’em.
Fortunately, in this case, people on both sides of the aisle are taking notice. A bipartisan group of congressmen led by House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have written to Secretary Vilsack urging him to rectify the situation. The liberal watchdog Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has called for Butler’s suspension from working on these rules. Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), has gone even further in pushing Vilsack to request Butler’s resignation:
Today, tort reform remains a pressing issue, with attorneys making millions off of frivolous lawsuits across the nation. Taxpayers are unintentionally funding these suits by paying Mr. Butlers salary. If Mr. Butler is allowed to continue at GIPSA, your administration will be aggravating an already serious situation.
It’s certainly one federal salary too many. Let’s hope Mr. Vilsack listens.
Billy Gribbin is a federal affairs associate at Americans for Tax Reform.