Lawyers to bail on checkoff lawsuit
Plaintiff accuses law firm of acquiescing to meat industry
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Attorneys involved in a lawsuit against the national Beef Checkoff program want to quit the case, citing a conflict of interest.
Michael Callicrate, the Colorado rancher who filed the complaint, said he believes the law firm has caved in to pressure from the meat industry.
"I am very skeptical," said Callicrate. "They have no legitimate basis for withdrawing from this lawsuit."
Gabriel Zorogastua, an attorney with the Polsinelli Shughart law firm who worked on Callicrate's case, said he could not comment on the matter.
Attorneys from the law firm filed a legal complaint on Callicrate's behalf earlier this year, claiming that Beef Checkoff dollars collected from cattle producers have been misspent.
According to the complaint, the Cattlemen's Beef Board, which administers the checkoff program, has become subservient to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade group that receives checkoff dollars.
Checkoff money has been steered to fund NCBA's lobbying activities, a prohibited use of such funds, the complaint said.
Callicrate claims the NCBA's lobbying efforts often work contrary to the best interests of cattlemen.
"They represent the interest of multinational meat packer at the expense of cattlemen," he said.
NCBA has said the lawsuit is without merit, arguing the group has not misappropriated checkoff funds for lobbying.
The Polsinelli Shughart law firm recently asked the judge to withdraw its attorneys from the lawsuit, citing a "previously unknown conflict" related to another client's "pre-existing discussions" with the USDA, which oversees the checkoff program.
Callicrate has objected to the attorneys' request, arguing they have "no grounds for mandatory withdrawal and no grounds for permissive withdrawal."
The law firm had agreed to represent him pro bono -- without compensation -- so allowing it to drop the lawsuit "will severely prejudice me and make it impossible for me to continue the case," according to Callicrate's court filing.
If the conflict of interest pertained to the same matter as Callicrate's lawsuit, the problem should have been noticed during a typical "prefiling conflict check," said Robert Fellmeth, a law professor at the University of San Diego, in a court document.
However, if another client with a "large retainer value to the firm" disagrees with Callicrate's views or doesn't want to offend the USDA, that's not a conflict of interest that would warrant withdrawing from a lawsuit, Fellmeth said.
"It's wrong these law firms aren't held accountable, so I'm going to hold them accountable," said Callicrate.
A federal judge has stayed the litigation, pending the release of an audit from the USDA's Office of the Inspector General about the Beef Checkoff.
The audit may reveal mismanagement of funds that prompts the agency take proper corrective action, Callicrate said.
However, it's possible the report will gloss over problems with the checkoff, he said. "If it's whitewashed, then this lawsuit gives us the opportunity to discover what happened."