Whitfield: Letter from opponents spurred anti-soring ethics inquiry

A Tennessee walking horse's padded and chained hoofs.
A Tennessee walking horse's padded and chained hoofs. U.S. Agriculture Department

A letter from the Performance Show Horse Association appears to support the contention by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, that opponents of his anti-soring legislation initiated an ethics inquiry against him.

Whitfield, who is running for his 10th term against Democratic challenger Charles Kendall Hatchett of Benton, is expected to speak at the annual Fancy Farm political picnic on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Whitfield released a statement to the Herald-Leader Thursday saying that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has blocked a vote on the bill.

"I am sad that a bill which 70 percent of the House of Representatives support, including 115 Republicans, can't be brought to a vote," Whitfield said. He pledged to continue efforts to stop the abusive practices of soring, which involves illegal training methods used on some Tennessee walking horses and similar breeds to achieve an unnatural show gait known as the "Big Lick."

An inquiry by the House Ethics Committee stems from a complaint made by walking horse enthusiasts who oppose his anti-soring legislation. On Monday, Whitfield called it an effort to derail widely supported reforms.

Whitfield's office cited a Dec. 27 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Ethics that was signed by members of the board of the Performance Show Horse Association.

Whitfield's office released a redacted copy of the letter, but the horse group later released a full copy after a media inquiry.

Although the letter went to the House committee, it apparently was forwarded to the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which conducted an examination that took several months.

The Office of Congressional Ethics cannot comment on the original complaint or make its report, forwarded to the House Ethics committee on June 10, public at this stage. The House Ethics committee will announce a course of action by Nov. 10.

Whitfield declined to make the report public but has said the matter under consideration by the House Ethics committee stems from that letter.

Jim Cortner, the PSHA chairman, bristled at that suggestion, saying it was not a formal complaint.

"Neither I nor the members of this board signed or filed a formal complaint with the House Ethics Committee regarding Mr. Whitfield. That a sitting member of Congress would issue such a statement is reprehensible, and I and my fellow board members demand a retraction of this statement immediately," Cortner said in a statement sent to the Herald-Leader.

However, the letter released by the PSHA does make accusations of impropriety involving Whitfield's wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, and Marty Irby, former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association, who now is Whitfield's press secretary.

Irby testified at a congressional hearing on Whitfield's bill in 2013 in favor of changes to current laws. Whitfield's legislation, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, would ban the pads and chains associated with the performance or "Big Lick" gaits.

The PSHA alleged that Irby "was recruited by Mr. Whitfield to advocate for his legislation and was promised or offered a position for that advocacy prior to his testimony." The letter says Irby was hired days after the Nov. 13 hearing.

"There has never been any 'quid pro quo,' and my testimony was not bought," Irby said Thursday. "I stand behind my testimony and want to see the rampant horrific abuse I have observed since childhood be eradicated permanently."

The PSHA board also said in the letter that Connie Harriman-Whitfield's work as a "compensated lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund" on behalf of the PAST Act "seems to be a significant violation of House rules."

The 2013 letter, signed by Jim Cortner, Terry Dotson, James L. Griffith, Jamie Hankins, Gayle Holcomb, Jeffrey Howard, Mike Inman, Bruce Macdonald, Lee W. McGartland, Dr. Doyle Meadows, Mickey McCormick, Buddy Stasney and Duke Thorson, members of the board of the Performance Show Horse Association, requested that the House Ethics committee investigate and take action.

On Wednesday, the PSHA said the group stands behind the statements in the letter but continued to deny that the letter was behind the congressional inquiry.

"As to why the Congressman and his press secretary state otherwise, the only reason we can surmise is they are trying to mislead reporters and the public about the real investigation regarding the Congressman's involvement with another lobbyist in a real estate transaction as reported by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Politico, Fox News and other media outlets," the PSHA said.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reported last month that Whitfield and his wife took out a joint loan with lobbyist Juanita Duggan to buy property near the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The center's report said Whitfield did not disclose the loan, as required by House rules.

On Monday, Whitfield denied that the complaint under consideration by the House Ethics committee involved a West Virginia land deal with a lobbyist.

"It's not about any money, not about any payoff, not about taking a bribe. It's about our trying to get rid of the soring, the chains, the pads," Whitfield said in a conference call with reporters. "I take it seriously, even when it's by people who have a financial interest in the bill's not succeeding."

In the letter, the PSHA said Whitfield's legislation would be "devastating" because it would "effectively eliminate the performance show horse segment of the equine industry," which the organization represents.

Whitfield said performance-gait supporters filed the complaint in an attempt to keep the bill, which has 305 House sponsors and 57 Senate sponsors, from coming to a vote.

In an interview Wednesday with the Herald-Leader, Connie Harriman-Whitfield said allegations that she persuaded her husband to file the anti-soring legislation on behalf of the Humane Society are ludicrous given his long record of support for animals.

Her salary is "well under $100,000" and isn't tied to specific legislation, she said.

"I'm a salaried employee; I work for a nonprofit, not a multimillion-dollar corporation," Harriman-Whitfield said. "I spend a lot of time working on strategy. Republicans don't like the Humane Society much."

An attorney, Harriman-Whitfield is listed as a senior policy adviser on the Humane Society website. She was an assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior under President H.W. Bush, among other federal posts.

Under Gov. Ernie Fletcher, she was vice chairwoman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority and a former chairwoman of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, where she helped to strengthen Kentucky's racing medication rules.