Last week, the Indy wrote about Missoula meat wholesaler Jim Caplis and the recall imposed on him by the Department of Livestock (see “A Missoula meat processor goes out with a beef,” Aug. 2). Caplis’ story was familiar to Garry Wheelock, who in 2015 sued the department, its then-executive officer Christian Mackay, and Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau head Gary Hamel in the wake of a contentious visit to Wheelock’s processing facility outside of Helena. In February, the Department settled the suit in federal court, agreeing to pay Wheelock $75,000.
In 2013, inspectors arrived at Wheelock’s state-inspected facility, where he processed livestock and game animals for their owners, saying they were acting on a report that he had been selling improperly labeled meat at a farmers market. Wheelock’s inspection was suspended for 90 days. An anonymous tip alleging that Wheelock continued processing under the suspension led Hamel himself to come to Wheelock’s property with two other inspectors to search the facility. Wheelock called 911 to report them for trespassing. When deputies arrived, they arrested Wheelock on assault and unlawful restraint charges. The inspectors returned later that same day, this time armed, Wheeler says, and prevented him from leaving while they waited for a search warrant. The charges against Wheelock were later dropped.
The Department of Livestock countered in court filings that it had found unsanitary conditions at Montana City Meats and that Wheelock behaved aggressively toward inspectors. Before the settlement was reached, the case had been set to go to trial in March of this year.
Wheelock says that the $75,000 settlement is a lot less than his actual losses from the disruption to his business, which he says a CPA calculated at about $1.2 million. He says his losses weren’t just financial. “This went on for five years. In the meantime, I mean, I went through a divorce,” Wheelock says. “I lost my family in this whole deal.”
Wheelock says his attorney requested an opportunity to appeal Montana City Meats’ suspension to the Board of Livestock three times, to no avail, leaving the courts his only remedy. He hoped that his settlement would serve as notice to the bureau that something needed to change. Then he saw that Caplis has alleged aggressive tactics by the same bureau. “What Gary [Hamel] did — no cease and desist, just walks in and shuts him down — the guy’s a bully,” Wheelock says. Hamel declined to comment for this story.
Wheelock’s attorney, Scott Peterson, confirmed the specifics of the settlement to the Independent. It included an agreement to reinspect Wheelock’s facility, because the department had initially decided to permanently revoke his license without a follow-up inspection. “The Department of Livestock has some very serious process issues in terms of establishing procedures for how these things are supposed to be handled,” Peterson says.
Wheelock doesn’t want his state inspection back. He processes animals through a USDA facility now, and still sells at the farmers market. “I don’t have any interest in having them on my property anymore until Gary Hamel is done,” he says.