Why Did O'Malley Cross the Road? Because Big Chicken Told Him To

Gov. O'Malley's closeness to Perdue was evidenced in 70 pages of emails acquired under a freedom of information request -- but subsequent disclosures indicate that the relationship may be even more tangled than was originally thought.
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Just last week, Food and Water Watch broke a story about extremely close ties between Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and the poultry company Perdue. O'Malley's closeness to Perdue was evidenced in 70 pages of emails acquired under a state freedom of information request; they are largely between O'Malley and Perdue's general counsel, Herb Frerichs. As revealing as the emails are, subsequent disclosures indicate that the relationship may be even more of a tangled web than was originally thought.

Maryland is home to the Perdue chicken empire, a multibillion-dollar industry that has managed to game the system to avoid responsibility for its waste in a way that few companies have achieved. Proper disposal of the hundreds of thousands of tons of manure from its very profitable enterprise is critical, given that agriculture, including Perdue's chicken farms, remains the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and many other waterways across the country.

Two years ago a lawsuit was filed against a Perdue farm for Clean Water Act violations in a case that, for the first time, sought to hold the poultry giant responsible for the wastes from its production system. The case has caused a firestorm of controversy and media attention and a full-fledged PR press by a company desperate to hold onto its polluting ways. They've even deployed their friend, the governor, to publically denounce the legal merits of the claim and bully the law school clinic that is acting as co-counsel in the case. The case is presently scheduled to go to trial in October of this year.

The governor claimed his public admonition to the clinic was motivated by his concern for the contract grower who was also named as a co-defendant in the case, but the emails between O'Malley and Perdue's lawyer, who is also a partner in the law firm that is representing the company in the CWA claim, indicate a very different reason. The emails suggest that O'Malley really doesn't really care about contract growers -- his real interest in making his inappropriate public stance against the suit is in protecting his friends at Perdue.

Privately, the poultry contract growers will tell you that there's simply no way for them to responsibly manage all the waste left behind by Perdue's chickens. Many will tell you that CWA co-permitting -- making the integrators such as Perdue equally liable for their highly-polluting waste -- would be one of the biggest benefits to overburdened contract growers. Yet in one draft email O'Malley writes to Jim Perdue, he promises the industry CEO that he will never pursue co-permitting in his state. So while O'Malley publically stands up for contract growers, in private he's undermining them by pandering to mega-rich integrators and telling Jim Perdue he'll never get in the way of Perdue's irresponsible waste practices.

It should not be surprising that O'Malley operates in such an underhanded way. In a recent report card put out by the State Integrity website that tracks corruption risk in the 50 states, Maryland was ranked 40th, receiving an overall grade of D-minus. You might think next year's report card grade will even go lower in light of this recent insider dealing disclosure, but for "Executive Accountability" O'Malley and Maryland were already getting an F. The governor just can't go any lower.

When faced with such flagrant indiscretions, you always have to ask yourself, "Why?" Why would the governor of a state like Maryland engage in such shameless pandering? It's certainly not economic importance. The agriculture industry in Maryland makes up only a tiny percentage (0.35 percent) of the state's GDP and Perdue and its poultry operations make up only a very small part of that already-minuscule percentage. Sure, there's some money involved; in 2010 Perdue switched its funding from the Republican Governor's Association to the Democratic Governor's Association. That was the same year that O'Malley just happened to become Chair of the Association. And, of course, O'Malley's brother was just recently handed a job at the law firm where Frerichs is a partner. But one would hope that those kinds of offerings aren't enough to sway a chief executive of a state, so perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.

In a Grist piece from last week, the author stated that O'Malley is acting like he's the
"Governor of the State of Perdue" instead of the state of Maryland. There's no denying that fact, but while O'Malley is trying to juggle Maryland and Perdue, he also has a third state on his mind: Iowa.

Unlike O'Malley's home state, Iowa's is largely ag-dependant, with the industry accounting for about 25 percent of state's economy. Iowa, as the first presidential caucus state in every election, also happens to be the initial stop on the road to the White House, a road that O'Malley has indicated he has every intention of traveling down come 2016. For O'Malley, pandering to big ag means paving the way for Iowa.

O'Malley is looking to go to Iowa and claim he's a friend of the farmer. He was hoping to hold high in one hand his public condemnation of the Perdue law suit to say he supports the "family farm" while keeping his backroom "no co-permitting" email assurances to the integrators tightly clenched in the other hand behind his back. If he didn't get caught in his hypocrisy and pandering, it would have been a win-win. But now that the truth is out, there is hopefully no Iowa for O'Malley. We've had enough of influence peddling and duplicity in our governmental leaders; we don't need more.

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