Watchdogs oppose NC undercover investigations bill

Friday, May 31, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C.  — A North Carolina bill criminalizing undercover investigations into workplace abuses has drawn opposition from at least 25 animal welfare, worker and watchdog groups.

A state Senate committee heard Thursday from the bill’s chief backer, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and representatives from the main opponent, the Humane Society of the United States.

The bill mostly makes changes relating to lawsuits and contracts, but it also contains a section making it a crime for an employee to lie or withhold requested information during the application process to later capture undercover footage of a workplace. Those employees could be charged with another crime if they don’t turn over footage to law enforcement within 24 hours of recording.

Employees violating either provision in North Carolina would face civil penalties.

Opponents argue the bill’s aimed at stifling the kind of investigations that uncovered abuses at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina in 2011 or a 2008 case into a California plant that led to the recall of more than 100 million pounds of tainted meat.

Ten similar bills have shown up in state legislatures this year, and all have either failed or never been heard, according to the Humane Society. Tennessee’s governor vetoed a bill after the state’s attorney general raised constitutional concerns around the First Amendment and self-incrimination.

The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce says members across a number of industries — not just agriculture — have asked for protections from what the business lobby calls employee fraud for reasons that also include corporate espionage. Gary Salamido, vice president of government affairs for the Chamber, said the bill does nothing to prevent employees in compliance with the bill from reporting violations and abuses.

“If they were hired and they didn’t mislead somebody, then they’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. “We think that protections are still there for folks and we want” serious violations reported. “We don’t think you should have to commit fraud to uncover things.”

But Matthew Dominguez, the public policy manager for the Humane Society, argued watchdog groups are needed more than ever in an age in which foreign companies are seeking to buy up U.S. food producers. He said the intent is clearly to discourage these practices because comprehensive investigations go on long after initial footage is recorded.

“They want us to, as soon as we see something bad, they want us to raise our hands and say, ‘Hey, we’re an undercover investigator,’ so they can turn it over to the police and say it’s an isolated incident,” he said.

The committee took no vote, deciding to form a subcommittee to look at legal issues and refine the bill before taking a vote.

Tags: , , ,