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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Birds, Blood, and Bribes

It’s no secret that Virginia was a hotbed of illegal cockfighting until the one-two punch of felony laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 2007 and the Virginia General Assembly in 2008 started to push cockfighters out of the Commonwealth. A federal judge in Virginia recently put the new law into action and made an example of two Page County cockfighters, sentencing one to 18 months in jail and another to six months incarceration and six months of home arrest.

CockfightingBut the cockfighters are not the only ones in hot water, as Page County Sheriff Daniel Presgraves  was indicted on 22 counts last week in a public corruption scandal. The federal indictment claims that Sheriff Presgraves took bribes in exchange for promising not to interfere with a cockfighting ring in the rural Shenandoah Valley region. If convicted on all charges, he faces 304 years in prison.

Included in the indictment was the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association, which federal prosecutors called “a statewide organization devoted to the preservation of ‘gamefowl’ (also known as ‘fighting roosters’ and ‘cocks’) and cockfighting.” It appears that VGBA President Chester Fannon collected the money generated through paid membership and entrance fees to cockfighting matches, and used the funds to make political contributions to state and federal candidates on behalf of the cockfighters. 

According to the indictment, Fannon and the VGBA allegedly devised an elaborate ruse to make it look like the funds were coming from his personal account, rather than from the cockfighting profits. This criminal scheme is all too familiar to animal advocates, who have maintained for years that the various state gamefowl breeding associations are nothing more than criminal syndicates who make their living collecting door fees at illegal cockfighting events and then laundering the money back into political campaigns to block the enactment of stronger animal fighting laws.

I’m sure many of the candidates did not realize the money was tainted when they received these apparently bogus campaign donations from Fannon and the cockfighting cartel. But did any of them become suspicious when they were lobbied by cockfighters who wanted to keep weak penalties on the books and get away with a slap on the wrist? It does look a bit odd that Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is on the list of lawmakers who appear to have received contributions from Fannon, and was one of only a handful of House members who voted against the felony animal fighting bill.

281x196_cockfighting_posterThe legislation passed overwhelmingly with Republican and Democratic support and was signed into law by President Bush. But Cantor and a few other Republican holdouts—like Congressmen Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Bill Sali (R-Idaho), and Don Young (R-Alaska)—sought to keep the penalties weak and give animal fighters a free pass. Some of these lawmakers are facing tough reelection battles next week, and their animal fighting votes may come back to bite them.

There’s no doubt that strapping knives to roosters’ legs, pumping them full of drugs to heighten aggression, and forcing them to fight to the death for entertainment and gambling is cruel and inhumane. But if there was any lingering doubt that animal fighting is a scourge in our communities that leads to other social ills, this case of public corruption and bribery is Exhibit A.

The members of Congress who opposed tougher penalties for animal fighting might caterwaul about “states' rights” and about higher law enforcement priorities, but that's a smokescreen. These people just don't sympathize with animal protection values. When local sheriffs are in the pay and in the pocket of organized crime, it’s all the more reason that our federal government must play a meaningful role in rooting out this despicable abuse of animals and abuse of the public trust.

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