To hear Fred Stokes tell it, he got carried away “a mite” in a Kansas City news conference Aug. 10 with his explanation of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board over the management of the beef checkoff.
Noting that the Humane Society of the U.S. had done the legal digging to lay the foundation for the suit, Stokes opined that “every cowboy out there owes a deep debt of gratitude to the Humane Society of the U.S.” for its efforts to help the checkoff benefit all cattlemen.
It was vintage Stokes, a career Army officer and founder and long-time official of the Organization for Competitive Markets: Anyone or anything that made markets work better was always welcome.
By the time he returned to his native Mississippi, however, he wasn’t welcome.
Conflict of interest?
On Aug. 13, Stokes, a district director for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, was en route to a state directors’ meeting when MFBF President Randy Knight telephoned to say he wanted to see Stokes privately before the meeting.
“He made it clear that I had crossed some line when I acknowledged the checkoff lawsuit and HSUS’s role in it,” Stokes relates. “The board inferred that I had conspired with HSUS in the lawsuit and that was a ‘conflict of interest’ on my part because Farm Bureau supports checkoffs.”
The lawsuit, “I told ’em, asks USDA to run the checkoff according to its rules. ‘Surely, you can’t be against something following its own rules,’ I said.”
Little did he know how prescient that remark would become.
Armed for battle
On Oct. 24, Mississippi Farm Bureau notified Stokes of an Oct. 29 “hearing” in Jackson to discuss two complaints filed by state board members over his “conflict of interest” with Farm Bureau policy.
Stokes came, with two attorneys, ready for a fight. One attorney, James Robertson, explained to the Mississippi Farm Bureau board that its own bylaws did not permit it to remove Stokes from office; in fact, only members who elected him to his state director’s post could do that.
Then Robertson, reinforced by J. Dudley Butler, the former administrator of USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, and a long-time ag attorney from Yazoo City, Miss., explained that the group’s bylaws required some “exchange of financial interest” for a conflict of interest charge to have merit.
“There’s nothing in this (checkoff) lawsuit that constitutes a transaction that Fred Stokes has with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation,” Robertson observed.
“Without that,” he continued, “you’re… letting your own values influence your judgment.”
The lawyers’ better knowledge of Farm Bureau’s own bylaws carried the day.
The state board, though, having neither the authority to remove Stokes nor cause — the conflict of interest charges were shown to be an empty device — allowed Stokes’ Farm Bureau future to be determined by members of the three-county district board he chaired.
On Nov. 12, state prez Randy Knight took charge and chaired that district meeting in Meridian, to, as he explained at its start, “decide if they wanted Mr. Stokes to continue to represent them.”
Whoa, not so, said Butler, again present at Stokes’ request.
MFBF’s bylaws require “cause” for removal of a director and the Jackson meeting clearly showed there was none. So, he suggested, if this is just a “personality vote or a popularity vote, I don’t think it complies with the by-laws” either. (Transcripts of the two hearings and other supporting documents are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)
Another attorney, Ricky Ruffin, reinforced Butler’s point about “cause.”
What are we doing here, Ruffin wondered, because “…if we are not here for some kind of cause… are we saying that we are going to kick this man off because we don’t like the way he parts his hair.”
And that’s just what happened; the locals, acting in what Stokes and Butler claim was state-controlled request and vote, cashiered him by 12 to 3 count, with two abstentions.
Stokes expected as much. He then quit because “I had proved just how phony their charges were. They had no ’cause.’ They just didn’t like what I said or thought, so they worked three months to get me and they got me.”
It’s a foolish victory because, using the standard they set in removing Stokes, any one of the them — or you — could be next for nothing more than you part your hair.
Or, of course, what you think.