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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Front Group Behind Cockfighting Criminals

Imagine a drug dealer peddling heroin in a schoolyard, and then using the ill-begotten gains to hire a professional lobbyist to advocate for relaxing the drug laws. Or using drug money to make political contributions, hoping to curry favor with lawmakers.

281x196_Cockfighting_Poster That’s precisely the type of behavior that Virginia cockfighters pleaded guilty to yesterday in federal court in Charlottesville. According to the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and the Northern Virginia Daily, the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association admitted a money laundering conspiracy, and the group’s former president, Chester William Fannon III, conceded that he made nearly $9,000 in illegal political donations to state and federal candidates.

The United Gamefowl Breeders Association and its state affiliates masquerade as people who raise and show chickens, as if there were a Westminster for birds. But this nefarious network has a transparent purpose, as it is the main group that consistently and vigorously opposes state and federal legislation seeking to strengthen laws against animal fighting. It wants to keep weak laws on the books—some no more severe than a parking ticket—for strapping razor-sharp knives to the legs of roosters and forcing them to hack each other to death for gambling profits and the enjoyment of spectators who are titillated by the bloodletting.

When a congressional committee held a hearing on a measure passed in 2007, making it a federal felony to move animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting, the UGBA’s president, Jerry Leber, testified against the bill. It was the New Mexico Gamefowl Breeders Association that filed a lawsuit to overturn the state’s 2007 ban on cockfighting, their claims rejected by the state appeals court just yesterday. When states like Alabama and Ohio consider proposals to upgrade their anti-cockfighting laws, it’s the UGBA affiliates that hire paid lobbyists and pack the hearing rooms with cockfighters—the only people with a vested interest in keeping the weak laws on the books and getting away with a slap on the wrist.

In the Virginia case, federal prosecutors called the VGBA “a statewide organization devoted to the preservation of ‘gamefowl’ (also known as ‘fighting roosters’ and ‘cocks’) and cockfighting.” They accused Fannon of collecting the money generated through paid membership and entrance fees to cockfighting matches, and using those funds to make political contributions to state and federal candidates on behalf of the cockfighters. According to the indictment, Fannon and the VGBA devised an elaborate ruse to make it look like the funds were coming from his personal account, rather than from the cockfighting profits.

In recent years, The HSUS, along with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), has made repeated complaints to the Internal Revenue Service for granting the UGBA a 501(c)(5) nonprofit tax exemption. This guilty plea and conviction should settle the question of whether these so-called “gamefowl breeding associations” are anything 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. We hope the IRS will now investigate the UGBA’s tax exempt status, and no longer give tax shelter to this front group for cockfighting criminals.


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