Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad says the state’s attorney general, who is a Democrat, bears some responsibility for the massive egg recall which has created a “black eye” for Iowa’s poultry industry, while Attorney General Tom Miller says Branstad has his facts wrong.

Branstad blasted Miller during an appearance earlier today in Le Mars. “The present attorney general basically let Jack DeCoster off the hook. The whole state of Iowa is getting a black eye for that guy, habitual violator,” Branstad said of DeCoster. “We were on course to have him put out of business before I left office and then they cut a deal with him.”

Miller says his office “aggressively” prosecuted DeCoster, all the way to the Supreme Court. “Former Governor Branstad is totally mistaken about the law in Iowa concerning feedlots and habitual violators,” Miller said during a telephone interview with Radio Iowa. “It’s either a convenient memory, or a misrepresentation.”

In 2000, after the state filed several lawsuits, DeCoster agreed to be labeled an “habitual violator” of state environmental laws and, as such, DeCoster was banned from building any new animal feeding operations in Iowa until October of 2004. DeCoster, however, was able to assume ownership of Wright County Egg. It’s a facility that’s at the heart of the salmonella outbreak.

In 2005, Attorney General Tom Miller received a $10,000 campaign contribution from Peter DeCoster, Jack DeCoster’s son. Miller returned the donation this past Monday after his Republican opponent raised questions about the check.  Branstad today suggested there’s something fishy about the contribution Miller got from DeCoster.

“I can tell you the Democratic Governors Association has gotten big money from this guy as well,” Branstad said in Le Mars.  “And you know, we should not have this in state government. Everybody ought to be treated the same and if we have somebody that has consistently violated the law — there’s no reason why this guy should be in business.”

According to Miller, state law goes only so far as to prevent an “habitual violator” of environmental standards from expanding in Iowa. “Former Governor Branstad could not be more wrong on the facts or on the law,” Miller said.  “There wasn’t the authority to put Jack DeCoster out of business in the hog area, where we were working. There was the authority to make him an habitual violator. We did that.”

Jack DeCoster started building hog facilities in Iowa in the 1980s, during Branstad’s first term as governor. Branstad suggests DeCoster’s reputation is unfairly tarnishing an entire industry. “There’s a lot of good people that are in the business of poultry and egg production in this state — and pork production — and unfortunately they paint ’em with a broad brush and give everybody a bad name for one really bad egg,” Branstad said in Le Mars. “And he’s the one that should be put out of business.” 

And Branstad is using this episode as a rallying cry for the Republican candidate who is running against Miller, the longtime state attorney general. “We have got a candidate for attorney general named Brenna Findley who has the guts to go to court and enforce the habitual violator law that our present attorney general won’t,” Branstad told the audience in Le Mars.

According to Miller, Branstad and his staff supported Miller’s prosecution of DeCoster in the 1990s — and DeCoster is the first and only farmer in Iowa to be designed an habitual violator. “But there was no authority to put him out of business and the idea that Branstad thought we could put him out of business is a total figment of his imagination,” Miller said during the interview with Radio Iowa. 

Miller is seeking an eighth term as attorney general and Branstad is seeking a fifth term as governor this November.

(Reporting by KLEM’s Joanne Glamm in Le Mars; additional reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson in Des Moines)