published Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Soring prosecutor hits law, warns horse owners, traders

A DQP (designated qualified person) for SHOW, a lay-inspection group, inspects a horse in the inspection area at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., on Thursday. All of the horses showing in the Celebration are inspected by SHOW and the USDA prior to competition.
A DQP (designated qualified person) for SHOW, a lay-inspection group, inspects a horse in the inspection area at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., on Thursday. All of the horses showing in the Celebration are inspected by SHOW and the USDA prior to competition.
Photo by Alyson Wright.
McConnell sentencing memorandum
McConnell sentencing memorandum

Public clamor over a recommendation of probation for the man caught by hidden camera beating a Tennessee walking horse has led federal prosecutors to file a 16-page explanation that points out sentencing limitations in the federal Horse Protection Act.

"While the government is cognizant of and shares the sentiments of the public outcry and desire to see significant jail time imposed on violators ... the sad reality is that the law passed by Congress does not possess significant teeth" to incarcerate former Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell, according to a sentencing memorandum filed Thursday.

The memorandum, written by prosecutor Steve Neff, makes clear that federal officials want McConnell punished to the maximum in every other way possible. The document puts owners and horse traders on notice as well.

Neff is seeking a maximum probation period for McConnell -- five years. And during that time he asks that the judge prohibit McConnell from owning, exhibiting, selling, transporting, working with or training horses, or even assisting in the training of horses.

"The one area of this case in which the court can promote respect for the law is in the arena of financial penalties. The court has the ability to impose an extensive fine under the statutory scheme — up to $250,000 — and the United States urges the court to exercise its authority in this area to the utmost," Neff wrote.

McConnell, whose total net worth is more than $2.2 million, according to court documents, was to be sentenced Monday. But last week U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice moved the sentencing to Sept. 18.

McConnell's attorney, Tom Greenholtz with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, declined to comment on the contents of Neff's sentencing memorandum.

"We are planning on filing one [a sentencing memorandum]," he said of himself and fellow defense attorney Hugh J. Moore Jr. "Probation is appropriate."

Busy summer

The sentencing of McCon-nell and two of his stablehands will cap off a volatile summer in the walking horse industry.

A very tense Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration ended a week ago with the horse industry -- which had wrapped itself in claims of self-reform -- asserting that overzealous federal inspectors had "wrongly" disqualified five times the normal number horses in the first week of the 11-day event.

But now, seven days after the final show, neither the USDA nor horse industry lay inspectors have been willing to trot out any inspection results.

After the Humane Society of the United States on Aug. 31 questioned why the 2012 Celebration industry-swabbing had found no problems and why disqualifications had prompted none of the industry-pledged sanctions, two trainers were singled out.

That same evening, National Celebration CEO Mike Inman banned trainer Chad Way from the Celebration grounds and any Celebration events for two years. Inman said lay inspectors disqualified a horse he brought to show because they said the horse had been sored -- abused with contraband chemicals and devices to induce the "big lick" gait.

The next morning, the Walking Horse Trainers Association, which introduced the industry's swabbing initiative, announced a two-week suspension of trainer Brad Davis. They also removed Davis' show ribbon, prize money and trophy.

Owners, traders beware

Neff's memorandum offers warnings to horse owners and traders.

"Wealthy and influential owners like some of those who patronized the defendant's [McConnell] training business for a long period of time knew or should have known that he was utilizing soring practices.

"This would have been self-evident from the large number of violations reflected in the administrative tickets and suspensions that he, his employees and the owners themselves received for soring over the duration of the period in which he trained their horses. Nevertheless, they continued to pay him large amounts of money to continue the training even while he was federally disqualified from doing so," Neff wrote.

And the prosecutor opened the door for future fraud cases.

"The purchase and resale of Tennessee walking horses, therefore is fraught with fraud" when based on a gait and show titles that are skewed because they are artificially enhanced, rather than the result of the horses' natural abilities.

"The individuals who purchase these horses, therefore, would be victims of fraud themselves unless they were aware of the illegal training practices," Neff wrote.

Keith Dane, the Humane Society's director of equine protection, on Friday praised the U.S. prosecutor's sentencing memorandum.

"We've been pushing for changes, both in legislation and regulation," he said.

The memorandum also adds details to McConnell's case, noting that he brought two sored horses to the 2011 Celebration, and the barn he worked from was raided by federal investigators even as that Celebration was going on.

When the two horses were disqualified, a federal search warrant was executed at McConnell's "staging barn" owned by one of McConnell's horse-owning clients and used by McConnell during the Celebration. The search yielded contraband soring chemicals.

"The legs of all 12 horses transported to the Celebration by the defendant were swabbed, laboratory-analyized and tested positive for chemicals prohibited by the Horse Protection Act," the memorandum states.

About six months later, McConnell's own barn was visited by animal welfare inspectors. An informant told investigators that McConnell — expecting the visit — ordered soring to cease a week before and told workers to remove all soring materials.

A search of a trash bin behind the barn yielded "numerous plastic wrappings emitting a strong chemical odor consistent in type and smell with wrappings removed from the horses he had trained and entered into the Celebration that tested positive for prohibited chemicals the previous August," the memorandum states.

The trash bin also contained syringes used to administer analgesics to horses to mask pain and conceal soring during inspections. And a search of McConnell's truck revealed a set of "grossly overweight leg chains" that are used with the chemicals to sore horses.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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