Conflict of Interest or "Teachable Moments"?
Cornerstone Farms aka Beginnings Ranch operated by Debra Ritter
In its story on USDA (see below e-newsletter article), ABC News reported on an internet seller of dogs from Missouri, Debra Ritter.  ABC News described a complaint from a buyer who had purchased a puppy from Ritter. The puppy had parvovirus and later died while under veterinary care. In addition, the puppy was distinctly different from the puppy advertised and promised to the buyer.

In the past, St. Louis’s Fox News (KTVI) has reported on consumer complaints about Debra Ritter. In fact, Debra Ritter has been the subject of consumer complaints for several years due to allegedly selling sick puppies as well as providing consumers with questionable records. 

According to ABC News, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) has cited Ritter for multiple animal care violations this past March. Indeed, state inspectors and state veterinarians have repeatedly cited Ritter, year after year, after discovering sick or injured dogs in need of medical care. MDA has been hesitant to refer Ritter to the state attorney general for legal action, however, because of the so-called “clean” write-ups by USDA inspectors. Over the past several years, USDA inspectors have failed to cite Ritter for any significant violations. There is a concern that Ritter would use her so-called “clean” USDA inspection reports in her defense to counter the five straight years of state violations for her operation’s lack of veterinary care, ramshackle enclosures and dirty conditions.  

For example, on August 8, 2016, USDA noted “no non-compliant items identified during this inspection” at Ritter’s facility. Yet, on that same day, August 8, 2016, MDA reported a dozen violations at the kennel, including an underweight dog, dogs with loose stools, dogs with fleas and missing fur, two dogs that were lame, a dog with signs of an ear infection, filthy conditions, and more. 

Could these lame and underweight dogs be considered “teachable moments” and be ignored by USDA inspectors, as has often happened in the past? Possibly, however, a Freedom of Information request revealed that USDA did not report any “teachable moments” during that time frame at Ritter’s facility. What other reason could then account for the fact that these dogs were ignored by USDA? The Alliance recently learned that several months after this inspection, the principal USDA inspector, who ignored violations at this facility, had married the daughter of Debra Ritter. 
Wedding photo of USDA inspector and daughter of Debra Ritter
The Alliance subsequently contacted both MDA and USDA about the existence of any policies to prevent conflicts of interests between its inspectors and the dog breeders whom the agencies are charged with regulating, including any members of the breeder’s families. MDA responded the same day and provided the Alliance with policies that specifically prohibit “any personal association where such association could call into question the integrity of the department or which could affect, or appear to affect, the decisions or mission of the Department.” MDA clarified that “personal relationships are defined as those that extend beyond a mere acquaintance or which may compromise the decisions of the employee involved, either in fact or in appearance.”

In contrast, the first USDA official whom we contacted about potential conflicts of interest responded that he was not certain whether USDA has any policies to address the issue but he would get back to the Alliance with information regarding any pertinent policies. He never followed up on that pledge, and when we reached out again, we received no response to our inquiry. We subsequently reached out to another USDA official, who replied in the affirmative, stating that USDA does indeed have pertinent policies; however, when we requested that USDA provide the Alliance with specific evidence of such policies, the USDA official declined to do so.  When the Alliance followed up again, the USDA official alleged that the Department does not need specific policies to address this issue. He assured the Alliance that those inspectors with relationships with licensees whether they be financial, dating, marriage, business, etc. would result in the inspector being immediately re-assigned.      

Unfortunately, in 2017 USDA ceased posting inspection reports and initiated a policy of redacting any such reports that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.  Therefore, we have no way of knowing how long Debra Ritter’s son-in-law has been inspecting her facility. Sadly, USDA refuses to acknowledge the date that Debra Ritter's son-in-law was reassigned from inspecting her operation but will only confirm that he is not doing so currently. USDA did admit that he continues to serve as an inspector for USDA in Missouri while his colleagues inspect his mother-in-law's kennel.

We do know that to date, USDA is still failing to take appropriate action against Ritter’s breeding operation
Dr. Robert Gibbens, USDA’s Director of Animal Welfare Operations, has “full confidence” in the inspector who gave Debra Ritter’s facility a clean bill of health. 
Not only does USDA seemingly condone conflicts of interest between its employees and those whom the Agency regulates, but its malfeasance is frustrating our state’s efforts to bring breeders into compliance with animal care laws – accomplishing this by providing “clean” USDA inspection reports to breeders whose operations are chronically substandard.    

On an interesting side note, former AP reporter Rory Kress, in her book The Doggie in the Window, reported on her interview with USDA’s Director of Animal Welfare Operations for Animal Care, Dr. Robert Gibbens. She confronted Dr. Gibbens on how state inspectors could discover serious violations at Ritter’s facility and on the same day, USDA inspectors noted no violations and gave Ritter’s facility a clean bill of health. Dr. Gibbens reply was , “I know that I have full confidence in those [USDA] inspectors to determine whether a facility is in compliance with our standards.”   1

1 Page 260, “The Doggie in the Window,” Rory Kress, Sourcebooks, Inc. (2018)