HELENA — State livestock agents illegally searched a Montana meat processors’ property after suspending his license in 2013, then had him arrested when he called police to remove the agents from his property, the man claimed in a lawsuit filed this month.
Garry Wheelock of Montana City Meats is suing the state Department of Livestock, former agency executive officer Christian Mackay and meat inspection bureau chief Gary Hamel. Wheelock’s claims include violations of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, intentional interference with his business, trespassing and defamatory statements.
Hamel and Board of Livestock member Brett De Bruycker declined to comment Monday on the lawsuit. Mackay resigned last week for undisclosed reasons after a year of budget shortfalls and an audit that faulted the agency for its accounting practices.
The board named state veterinarian Marty Zaluski on Monday as interim executive officer while it searches for a permanent replacement.
Montana City Meats has a custom exempt license that allows Wheelock to process meat only for the owners of animals, such as ranchers or hunters, rather than sell the meat to grocery stores or restaurants.
In July 2013, Wheelock’s license was suspended for 90 days after Hamel and three other agents visited the plant. Hamel wrote in a letter following that visit that he and the agents found fly infestations, maggots and other violations. Portions of the letter appeared in media reports.
Wheelock had never been cited for violations in the past, and inspectors had never before observed the conditions Hamel described, according to the department’s inspection supervisor at the time, Susan Ostler.
Wheelock told Ostler afterward that he had not yet cleaned from the night before the surprise inspection. State regulations require a full cleaning only before the start of the next shift, Ostler told The Associated Press.
“I’m still floored by all they did to that man,” Ostler said. “Publicly, too.”
Hamel’s visit was the result of a complaint that the meat Wheelock sold at farmers’ markets was mislabeled, she said.
Because of Wheelock’s custom exempt license, the meat he sold at farmers’ markets must be slaughtered, packaged and labeled at a different plant, but Wheelock was putting labels on the meat at his own facility, said Ostler, who left the agency in 2013.
The agency did not respond to Wheelock’s requests for documents on the suspension and it denied him the right to appeal, the lawsuit alleges.
After Wheelock made a public-records request for the documents he was seeking, Hamel and armed livestock inspectors searched his home and plant without a warrant, according to the lawsuit.
Wheelock called police to report trespassers on his property, but Wheelock himself was arrested on assault and unlawful restraint charges. The charges were later dropped.
Wheelock’s lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 10 in Lewis and Clark County District Court, claims the defendants intentionally tried to damage his business.
Attorneys for the state have until next month to file a response to the lawsuit.
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