Commentary

Senator barked up the wrong tree in defending kennel owner

October 25, 2021 8:00 am

A state senator reportedly snapped at state officials and invoked the possibility of gun violence while advocating for a dog breeder facing a license suspension. (Photo via Pxhere)

State Sen. Roby Smith’s conduct in bullying Iowa Department of Agriculture staff on behalf of a constituent and raising the possibility of gun violence was beyond disturbing.

If you missed Clark Kauffman’s story in Iowa Capital Dispatch, you can read it here.

The constituent, Davenport kennel owner Robert Burns, couldn’t have been more pleased that penalties against his business for animal-welfare violations were reduced after Smith joined him in a two-hour phone call with top agency staff. And for good reason.

Burns has been cited repeatedly over the past several years for failing to adequately care for the dogs in his custody. Dogs have been attacked and injured by other dogs after too many animals were allowed in “play groups” and inadequately supervised.

In late July, he was facing the potential of additional penalties for remaining open during a 30-day license suspension. After Smith intervened, the suspension time was cut in half, from 30 days to 15 days, and Burns was given extra time to pay a $3,000 fine.

“He was almost acting like he was my lawyer,” Burns told Kauffman, referring to Smith.

Lawmakers intervene for family members, punish universities

There’s nothing wrong with lawmakers assisting constituents in navigating the bureaucracy. That’s part of their job. But it goes too far when lawmakers are pressuring agencies to treat some Iowans, especially a repeat offender like Burns, differently than others would be treated in a similar situation. We’ve seen other examples of questionable decisions from state agencies after lawmakers have intervened.

Another recent example reported by the Iowa Capital Dispatch was the Department of Natural Resources approving a large cattle operation near a protected trout stream after one of the owners engaged his father-in-law, state Sen. Dan Zumbach, to advocate on the project’s behalf.  The state is now being sued over DNR’s decision.

And we’ve also seen how far the GOP-controlled Legislature is willing to go to punish state-funded entities that don’t toe the line. Republicans zeroed out any funding increase for all three state universities after a blowup over free-speech issues on campus. That was after passing legislation requiring First Amendment training that should be more than adequate to solve any future problems.

Smith distorts ‘stand your ground’

State Sen. Roby Smith is a Republican from Davenport. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

But Smith, a Davenport Republican, didn’t threaten the ag department’s budget, at least not based on the account from Burns. Instead, the senator suggested that inspectors who are doing their jobs might get shot.

According to Burns and his mother, who was present for the phone conversation with state officials, Smith said: “You know, Iowa is a stand-your-ground state.” As if a business owner licensed under animal welfare laws would somehow be justified in opening fire on an inspector who came to see if the business was closed during a mandated suspension.

That’s a gross misstatement of what Iowa’s “stand your ground” law allows, and Smith should know that. The law does not allow the use of deadly force against someone who has a right to be on the property. An animal welfare license holder is required to submit to inspections during business hours and that means inspectors are allowed to be on the property to do their jobs.

Looking in a window to see if a business is open is a far cry from “unlawfully entering by force or stealth,” as Iowa’s law specifies as justification for use of deadly force by a property owner. A business owner who knows inspectors are allowed on the property could not reasonably believe someone looking in a business window during normal business hours was trying to break in.

There’s no reason to bring up such a distorted interpretation of “stand your ground” except to try to intimidate state officials from doing their jobs. It’s certainly not just a misguided concern for their safety. When a public official says that kind of thing, it makes everyone who enforces the law less safe.

‘I don’t work for you’

When Kauffman called Smith to ask him about Burns’ account of the phone call to the ag department, the senator not only refused comment but also declared: “I don’t work for you.”

The next day, Burns told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that Smith had called him to complain about the call from the reporter. “‘He was like, just kind of, ‘Leave my name out of it,’” Burns said. An odd reaction from a politician – usually, they love getting credit for going out of their way to help a constituent.

Smith, as Senate State Government Committee chairman, has written laws for the entire state of Iowa, including those that made it harder for many people to vote. He is paid for his work out of tax dollars from the entire state, not just his own district.

He works for all Iowans, and some of them might want to tell Smith to stop barking up the wrong tree.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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