N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler defended his agency's top poultry expert and denied knowing about her call to the veterinarian of a company under criminal investigation.
Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, the director of animal health programs in the agriculture department's poultry division, allegedly tipped off Butterball officials to a raid at its Shannon facility, thwarting an investigation after undercover footage showed animal abuse.
In an interview Thursday, Troxler said he couldn't say too much because of the pending criminal investigation and his agency's personnel inquiry. "This is about loose lips and I'm not going to be a part of that," he said. But he made clear he didn't know about Mason's call and rejected suggestions about problems at the agency made by Progress NC, a liberal advocacy group.
The Republican agency chief acknowledged that he knew about the Hoke County criminal investigation after the local prosecutor called the agriculture department's attorney to ask about the agency's regulatory jurisdiction. But the agency told local officials it had no enforcement authority in the matter, Troxler said.
"I had no knowledge nor did anyone else in the department about Dr. Sarah Mason making this call," he said, echoing Mason's own comments in a recent statement. "Anything that anyone else alleges has got to have some ulterior motives."
Troxler said "this whole issue was unfortunate" and called Mason "an exemplary employee."
"I think its just like she said," he said. "She acted to protect the avian health of these birds."