The Dollarhites: Victims of an out-of-control federal government

Sen. Rand Paul Senator (R-KY)
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The following is an excerpt from GOVERNMENT BULLIES: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds by Senator Rand Paul. Used with permission from Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

At our “Property Wrongs” Senate hearing in 2011, I met the Dollarhite family, who testified before our committee. The Dollarhites live in Nixa, Missouri, on three agriculturally zoned acres. Husband and wife John and Judy have a background in agriculture and wanted to give their teenage son a real-life lesson in the family business. In 2006, the couple rescued two rabbits. Soon, as rabbits inevitably and rapidly do, their new rabbits began reproducing. The Dollarhites decided handling these rabbits would be a good first business project for their son. He would raise and care for the rabbits and then sell the meat by the pound, or perhaps sell the rabbits as pets to their neighbors and friends. This was supposed to be the rabbit version of a lemonade stand, something to teach their son the value of hard work, responsibility, and the trials and tribulations of the agriculture business.

Being from an agricultural background, the Dollarhites also knew that there must be some regulatory process monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. John Dollarhite went to the USDA office and was told by agency representatives that they only dealt with water and soil issues. After being directed and shuffled around to dozens of various government officials, they were advised to call the USDA regional office in Colorado Springs. The regional office told the Dollarhites that they did not need a USDA license because the government classified rabbits as poultry and thus did not regulate them. They were surprised by this information and wanted to be extra sure they were following the proper rules and procedures, so they continued to seek answers. They attended church with a USDA meat inspector, who confirmed that the USDA did not regulate poultry.

So, finally, the Dollarhites began their business of selling rabbits.

The Dollarhites’ rabbits became quickly widely known and sold by the dozen. They were praised by experts for their superior quality and condition. The Dollarhites launched a business website and put a sign in their yard advertising rabbits for sale. The rabbitry became so renowned that in 2009 two very large buyers approached the family. Local theme park Silver Dollar City wished to purchase rabbits to sell in their petting zoo. National pet store chain Petland wished to sell the family’s rabbits as well, and also asked the Dollarhites to raise and sell guinea pigs to the pet chain, because they were having difficulty acquiring both animals from their other suppliers.

By the end of 2009, the Dollarhites had sold approximately 440 rabbits and grossed $4,600, with a profit of approximately $200. John said that that profit was enough to provide the family with pocket money, which enabled them to eat out at a restaurant on a couple of occasions. It never entered their minds that they were doing anything wrong, especially since they reported their income and took only their allowed deductions on their tax returns.

In the fall of 2009, the Dollarhites received a visit from the USDA. An inspector showed up at the family’s home, unannounced, without a warrant, without citation, and without any identification.

The official claimed that she was there to conduct a “spot inspection” of the rabbitry. After scouring the premises, she declared that everything seemed to be in order and that their rabbits were some of the healthiest she had inspected. The inspector did say that there were a few minor and insignificant aspects of the facility that were in violation of USDA standards, but the Dollarhites were not certified by the USDA, nor were they required to be. That was the end of the government inspection.

Or so they thought.

The Dollarhites carried on with their daily business until January 2010, when the USDA returned. The family received a phone call from a Kansas City-based USDA inspector who requested to have a meeting with the family regarding their rabbitry. The official informed them that refusing to meet with him would be a huge mistake and advised them to have an attorney present. During the meeting they were advised to cease their rabbit business, and if they did so, they would only face up to $1,000 in fines. The USDA agent explained that they should expect a four-to-six-week timeframe for the report to be filed, and then they could expect to hear the USDA’s decision.

The Dollarhites followed the advice of the agent and immediately closed their business. But after eight weeks had passed, they had still not received any sort of notification from the USDA. So John Dollarhite became proactive, calling the agency in order to find out its verdict. USDA enforcement specialist Roxanne Folk told Mr. Dollarhite that their file was sitting on her desk and she had not finished reviewing it. She added harshly that they should expect to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and that the USDA was going to make “an example” out of them. When John asked what she meant by that, Folk stated that they would simply have to wait for notification from her, then she promptly hung up the phone.

The Dollarhites did not hear from the USDA for an entire year.

Then in April 2011 the Dollarhites received a certified letter in the mail claiming that they had violated the Animal Welfare Act. Their fine? $3.9 million! But the USDA, in its benevolent mercy, informed the family that the agency was willing to settle for a payment of $90,643 if paid by May 23, 2011 — a mere month later.

So what exactly could the Dollarhites have possibly done to deserve such a draconian fine?

They had violated some mystery law that prohibits the selling of more than $500 worth of rabbits within a one-year period.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is the author of “Government Bullies.”