The Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed in 1970 to clamp down on the practice of soring (intentionally injuring horses’ legs and hooves) to create a more high-stepping gait for walking horse shows. Weak enforcement of the law, however, has allowed the practice to continue through the ensuing decades. But recently the US Department of Agriculture reached a new low—committing an inexplicable error, then trying to cover it up.
In April 2021, the USDA filed an administrative complaint under the HPA against David Latham. It was the first HPA complaint filed in 14 months and only the second in the last four years. Yet, one month later, the department bewilderingly asked the chief USDA administrative law judge, Channing Strother, to dismiss it. The request was granted.
Latham has been in trouble for soring before. In a prior case, a September 2017 settlement was reached that resolved all alleged or potential HPA violations by Latham committed up to and including September 4, 2017. He was assessed a paltry $550 fine and given a four-month suspension during the off-season.
The April 2021 complaint alleged that Latham entered sored horses in shows seven times from May to October 2017. But five of the allegations involve shows that occurred before September 4, 2017—even though the earlier settlement shielded Latham from further penalties involving incidents prior to that date. This monumental blunder, however, apparently evaded USDA investigators, attorneys, and the head of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, who all signed off on the complaint.
So, did the USDA attempt to rectify this by requesting dismissal of the complaint and starting over, minus the five resolved instances? No. The department, in fact, didn’t tell Judge Strother why it was seeking dismissal. It merely stated that it had “determined that it is not necessary to pursue this matter at this time in order to effectuate the purposes” of the HPA. Further, the USDA asked Judge Strother to dismiss with prejudice the remaining two allegations regarding instances that occurred after September 4, 2017. In short, the USDA asked its own chief administrative law judge to bar it from ever pursuing the only viable claims in the complaint.
Instead of admitting to the judge that it had erred and would either amend or re-file the complaint, the department apparently chose to wipe the slate clean and hope no one would notice. Perhaps, considering all of the criticism AWI and others have aimed at the USDA for decades regarding its lack of enforcement of federal animal welfare laws, the department felt little desire to further advertise its slipshod HPA enforcement.
Being forced to withdraw a complaint—again, only the second filed in the past four years—just a month after filing is indeed an embarrassment. But cravenly misleading a federal judge and the public regarding the true reasons for the dismissal while unconditionally surrendering the only legally viable enforcement avenues is far, far worse. This latest example of the department’s abject failure to enforce the law cries out for action—e.g., congressional hearings, an Office of Inspector General investigation—to ensure accountability and legitimate enforcement in the future.