U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said Monday that an ethics investigation underway in Washington was prompted by efforts to derail his legislation to fight soring of Tennessee walking horses.
Whitfield told reporters that the complaint alleges that his wife, Connie, lobbied him for the Humane Society of the United States to file the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, which seeks to ban the pads and chains used by some walking horse trainers.
"She did not lobby me on it," Whitfield said. "I was involved in this in 2004, wrote a letter about it in 2010. I'd already made a decision to introduce this bill. Connie was a part of the coalition, along with (American Horse Council president) Jay Hickey and others. She did not convince me to do this bill. I've been involved in animal issues since I was first elected in 1994."
Connie Whitfield is an attorney who has worked as a consultant for the Humane Society since 2011 and has lobbied on behalf of the PAST Act.
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Ed Whitfield said that "ironically, my score with Humane Society has gone down" in recent years because he doesn't support other parts of the group's agenda pertaining to animal agriculture.
Opponents of the legislation have alleged that Connie Whitfield's involvement on the bill is a conflict of interest because she is a paid lobbyist. Connie Whitfield denied that her interest is unethical.
"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," Ed Whitfield said. "I take it seriously, even when it's by people who have a financial interest in the bill's not succeeding."
The ethics complaint made June 10 was filed by officials with The Celebration, a major Tennessee walking horse show held annually in Tennessee featuring the "Big Lick" performance gait, he said.
The exaggerated performance gait cannot be achieved without using illegal training methods, Whitfield said. His proposed PAST Act would ban the pads and chains associated with the Big Lick.
Collectively, the people who filed the ethics complaint have 53 violations of the federal Horse Protection Act, which regulates walking horse shows and sales, he said.
The PAST Act has more than 300 co-sponsors in the House and 57 for a companion bill in the Senate, and it has the backing of the American Horse Council, the American Veterinarian Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and all 50 state veterinary groups.
But only one member of the Kentucky delegation — U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville — supports the bill.
Other members, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, are co-sponsors of competing legislation filed by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, that the American Horse Council has said would be ineffective and could make soring worse.
Soring involves the use of chemicals or illegal training techniques to get horses to lift their front feet unnaturally high.
It is unclear whether a second ethics complaint involving a West Virginia land deal is pending. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has said that Whitfield and his wife took out a joint loan with lobbyist Juanita Duggan to buy property near the Greenbrier resort. The center's report said Whitfield did not disclose the loan as required by House rules.
Whitfield declined to discuss the deal Monday or release documents related to the land deal because the current ethics investigation involves only his wife's lobbying efforts.
The House Committee on Ethics said they would announce a course of action on or before Nov. 10.