Animal welfare activists facing prison time seek top Utah prosecutor’s donor list

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, currently under scrutiny in his reelection bid over the sources of his big fundraising dollars and allegations that he’s put the office up “for sale,” now faces similar accusations on a separate front: in the courtroom.

One of two California animal welfare activists who face up to 60 years in prison for allegedly stealing pigs from a Beaver County hog farm in 2017 filed a motion in 5th District Court late last month asking a judge to compel Reyes, whose office is involved in prosecuting their case, to disclose his campaign contributions.

Given the potential of past affiliations with the animal agriculture industry, there is a “legitimate question” of whether Reyes has a “personal interest” in the case, the defendants argue. And they want to know whether Reyes has taken campaign contributions from Smithfield Foods — which owns the Circle Four Farms they’re accused of stealing from — that could present an “undue influence over him or the functioning of the Attorney General’s Office.”

“There’s a basic principle in the law that prosecutors need to be objective and free of any conflict of interest,” Wayne Hsiung, one of two defendants taking the case to trial, argued in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Even the best of us, if we’re receiving financial contributions from someone or are extremely good friends or family members with someone, we’re going to be biased towards them.”

The state is fighting the defense request, arguing that Reyes’ campaign work and fundraising are “completely unrelated” to the case the Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting jointly with the Beaver County attorney.

“Any allegation by defense counsel that our prosecution is motivated by personal or political interests is simply untrue and merely a delay tactic or smokescreen to try and deflect attention from the crimes committed by defendants,” the office said in a statement to The Tribune, noting that Reyes was not involved in screening the case or the decision to prosecute it.

Reyes also categorically denied any conflict of interest with Smithfield in a statement to the newspaper.

Campaign ties?

But the defense motion for discovery, filed on behalf of Paul Darwin Picklesimer, attempts to use campaign finance donations to establish a possible connection between Smithfield and Utah’s attorney general.

It states that Smithfield Foods, which is owned by Shuanghui International of China, donated at least $10,410 to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) in 2014, an assertion backed up by public records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The lawsuit says the group also gave money to RAGA in 2016, though The Tribune could not independently confirm those donations.

Picklesimer’s attorney notes that RAGA gave Reyes campaign donations in 2014 and 2016.

A Tribune analysis of campaign finance records found the organization donated at least $150,000 to Reyes’ campaign in 2016, including through its RAGA Utah PAC. The state campaign finance website does not show any donations from RAGA in 2014, but court documents cite contributions listed on FollowTheMoney.org, a nonprofit that archives state and federal elections data.

This year, RAGA’s Utah PAC has provided much of the nearly $300,000 that it spent to campaign independently on behalf of Reyes. The group also gave $125,000 directly to the Reyes campaign.

RAGA accepts money from many groups that do not disclose their own donors, providing a path for donors to Reyes to remain anonymous. Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, who lost to Reyes in last month’s Republican primary for attorney general, called that a “money laundering” operation to hide who is financially supporting Reyes.

The Tribune found $500 in direct contributions from Smithfield to Reyes in state campaign finance records one day after the June 30 GOP primary.

Beyond donations, the defendant also raises concern about potential personal connections Reyes could have to the animal agriculture industry. The motion notes that before he was elected, Reyes worked for the firm Parsons, Behle & Latimer, which lists on its website “agriculture” as one of a host of industries its lawyers represent.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Attorney General Sean Reyes joins candidate David Leavitt, the Utah County attorney, in a debate at KUED, June 2, 2020.

Taken together, Picklesimer’s attorney argues, “these financial and employment ties demonstrate that Sean Reyes has had, at least in the past, a personal interest in the animal agriculture industry” that could disqualify him from prosecuting the case.

The state argues, in a response to the defense’s motion, that the request for Reyes to disclose his campaign contributors is “overbroad and unduly burdensome.”

“To have the state find, then submit, the requested information would establish the precedent that the state would have to analyze campaign contributions and donations in every criminal case it files to ensure that the alleged victim does not have an impact over the work of the prosecuting office,” the prosecution stated. “Such a precedent would overburden the Office of the Attorney General as it tries to maintain and uphold the law within Utah.”

A ruling in favor of the defendants could also have a chilling effect, the state contends, keeping individuals and corporations from exercising their constitutionally protected right “of engaging in the political system through campaign donations,” which the courts have ruled is a form of free speech.

Reyes, in a statement to The Tribune, said he has had no personal involvement in the case, “and no relationship or discussions with Smithfield before, during or after the case was filed. I’ve not met with Smithfield executives or managers. I have not received any campaign contributions from Smithfield.”

“There is no conflict of interest,” he continued. “Defendants are employing an age-old tactic of distraction by suggesting a number of theories, even without substantiation. I’m confident the court will continue to see through them.”

Hsiung argues, though, that it would be easy for the state to respond to the request if Reyes has nothing to hide.

“If there’s nothing there, they can just say there’s nothing there,” he said. “The fact that they resisted it was itself concerning to us.”

‘Operation Deathstar'

The request for information about Reyes’ campaign contributions is the latest twist in a case that began more than three years ago, on a March 2017 night when activists from the group Direct Action Everywhere went into the Smithfield farm near Milford with the objective of “exposing” injustices within the facility.

Weeks later, they released footage of that visit, titled “Operation Deathstar” to The New York Times: an immersive, 360-degree view of what they saw, from pigs yowling and hitting their bodies against the steel bars corralling them to a group of dead piglets. The video ends shortly after the team extracts one of the animals to take to the vet.

Smithfield appears to have been unaware of the covert mission until July, when an employee saw the video on The Times’ website. Afterward, the Beaver County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI began investigating and raided Utah animal sanctuaries in search of the animals.

In responding to the video, Smithfield has accused the activists of editing and staging the footage at its facility, an assertion Direct Action Everywhere denies. The hog farm has also criticized the group for putting the animals in danger by not following biosecurity protocols meant to minimize the introduction of diseases into barns.

Outside audits submitted to the court also seek to dispel concerns about animal cruelty at the facility. One of the audits, conducted by Jennifer Woods, a livestock handling specialist from Alberta, Canada, raises concerns about the number of shoulder lesions found on the pigs and about an overcrowded euthanasia container. But she states that, overall, she did “not have, nor have had concerns about the care of the animals at this facility.”

After an investigation, Hsiung, Picklesimer and three others were charged in state court in Beaver with four felony counts, each punishable by up to 15 years in prison: pattern of unlawful activity, theft of livestock and two counts of burglary against an animal enterprise. They are also charged with a misdemeanor count of rioting.

In the more than two years since the charges were filed, their co-defendants have taken plea bargains to avoid prison time, leaving Hsiung and Picklesimer as the only two taking the case to trial.

The two also face felonies in Sanpete County, where they are accused of taking a turkey chick from a Norbest farm in Moroni. The activists say they were saving the bird, which was on the edge of death due to inhumane conditions.

(Courtesy Wayne Hsiung) Turkeys are seen at a Norbest farm near Moroni, Utah. The photos were taken by activists from Direct Action Everywhere.

Staring down the possibility of decades behind bars is a difficult prospect, said Picklesimer, and it’s not one the two take lightly, even as they anticipate they wouldn’t serve full sentences. But any plea deal in the Smithfield case would have come with the requirement that they not speak ill of Smithfield — and that was an agreement they felt they couldn’t make.

“I feel like a public service is being provided in terms of helping people see what’s going on inside these places,” Picklesimer said in an interview, “and that that is lost if we don’t get to continue that narrative.”

As part of that aim, Hsiung and Picklesimer say they plan to request that the jury be required to put on virtual reality headsets and watch the footage they gathered during their night at Smithfield’s farm as they weigh their verdict.

“This is the evidence that we presented to the public that allowed them to prosecute us,” Hsiung said. “This is the reason Smithfield even knew all this happened. I mean, we didn’t do this to hide what we did; we did this to show quite openly what we did. And I think the jury’s entitled to see quite openly what we published to the world that allowed the prosecution and FBI and Smithfield to then generate this legal case against us.”

If the prosecution has its way, the defense would be unable to discuss claims of animal cruelty or allude to inhumane animal conditions — a strategy the state says would play more to the “passions and emotions of the jury” than to “legally cognizable rights.”

And because the pigs “were not defendants’ animals to protect,” the state contends that Picklesimer and Husing “lack standing to raise the defense of justification for burglary and theft.”

The defense, of course, disagrees and argues that “animal abuse and deviation from standards of animal husbandry are unavoidable topics for this trial.”

“There is no case here if we don’t talk about animal cruelty,” Hsiung told The Tribune. “Our intention was not to deprive [Smithfield] of any property, not to steal an animal from them. It was to take an animal who was very seriously sick to a vet and that’s it.”

Reyes said in a statement that prosecutors see this as a “straightforward case,” noting that they have film of the defendants committing the crimes they’ve brought forward.

“This case is not about whether the defendants’ cause is just,” he said. “They may have legitimate reasons to protest. They can boycott, rally, or criticize the pig farm all they want on social media or on property where permitted. But they are not allowed to break the law to make their point. And if they do break the law, they must accept the consequences.”