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April 15, 2011 / V A Nichols

Will greed trump compassion yet again in Alabama?

Law-breaking by special interest appears acceptable to north Alabama legislators. 

Cockfighting lobby likely to derail bill that would stiffen penalties for crime

Published: Friday, April 15, 2011, 8:00 AM     Updated: Friday, April 15, 2011, 10:16 AM
George Altman, Washington Bureau By George Altman, Washington Bureau Press-Register
CockfightingThe sponsor of a bill that would stiffen penalties for cockfighting says it is under pressure from lobbyists.  (The Associated Press)

Alabama’s cockfighting lobby appears to be on the verge of blocking yet another bill that would impose stiffer penalties for the crime, the bill’s sponsor said.

State Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, said that while House Bill 74, which would elevate the offense from parking-ticket levels to hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars in fines and potential jail time, has passed through committee, it probably won’t be considered by the full House.

“The sentiment of the House – particularly a lot of the northern Alabama representatives – (is that they) do not want to deal with it,” Barton said. “I think there’s been a lot of pressure on those guys.”

The pressure, according to Barton, has come from the Alabama Gamefowl Breeders Association, which has helped derail similar bills in recent years.

“Alabama has more important things to worry about than cockfighting,” said D’Renda Lewis, the association’s secretary.

Not only are the $20 to $50 maximum fines for cockfighting currently on the books sufficient, they shouldn’t even apply to most cockfights in Alabama, which are not held in public places and are, therefore, legal, according to Lewis.

“The majority of people who participate in cockfighting in Alabama are not doing anything against the law,” Lewis said.

Weakest penalties in nation

Mindy Gilbert, Alabama state director for the Humane Society, said Alabama has the weakest cockfighting penalties in the nation, and as a result has become a destination for cockfighting. She added that she is exasperated to see cockfighting supporters lobby lawmakers to go easy on criminal activity.

“It sort of suggests that they are an organized group of criminals that … have hired a lobbyist to keep the penalties low so they can keep breaking the law,” Gilbert said.

The bill would make conducting cockfights a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and three months in prison for a first offense. Subsequent offenses would be classified as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $3,000 fine and six months in prison.

In addition to people who put on cockfights, such punishment would also apply to those who attend cockfights, sell or train a rooster for cockfighting, participate in business dealings related to cockfighting, bet on cockfighting and other related activities.

‘Your hobby just got a lot more expensive’

An earlier version of the bill called for stiffer penalties but was amended by the House Judiciary Committee.

Posting on an online message board, Lewis warned about the legislation and asked for contributions to help the Alabama Gamefowl Breeders Association, or ALGBA, fight it.

“Get your checkbook out and mail in your dues, no excuses, and make another check out for a donation to ALGBA because your hobby just got a lot more expensive,” Lewis wrote.

Asked whether “hobby” referred to cockfighting, she said: “The majority of people who have gamecocks in Alabama, yeah they do cockfight as a hobby. … That is not to say that all the members of the Alabama Gamefowl Breeders Association are cockfighters.”

In the same online posting, Lewis also asked readers to visit their lawmakers to lobby against the bill and come bearing gifts – a request that prompted a formal ethics complaint from the Humane Society.

“Visit in person, take a small token of appreciation to them, a box of candy, small bouquet of flowers, you get my drift, a small token,” Lewis wrote.

Alabama Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner said legal constraints keep him from discussing any particular complaint his agency may or may not receive. But he added that small gifts to lawmakers are typically allowed.

“Items of relatively minimal value, I think, will be accepted,” Sumner said.

Lewis called the ethics complaint a “publicity stunt” and said bringing a gift is about manners, not bribery.

“In my upbringing, I was taught that when you visit someone, you take a small gift,” she said.

© 2011 All rights reserved.


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