The cattle ranching industry in Arizona is being torn apart due to corruption and crime. It has split longtime cowboys against each other. Much of it comes down to cattle rustling that has been allowed to thrive, with close to 3,000 heads of cattle stolen from at least 32 owners over the past few years. There may also be money laundering connected to the Mafia and Mexican drug cartels.
The corruption became so bad the Arizona Department of Agriculture tasked an investigator to look into it a few years ago. He gave the results of his investigation, known as “Operation Cow Posse,” to Judicial Watch in 2019 as the scandal escalated. Cattle ranchers told him the scandal went all the way to the Arizona Legislature. They claimed that a powerful lobbyist helped launder millions of dollars from Pinnacle West, the parent company of electric company Arizona Public Service, through cattle growers’ bank accounts. People working at the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association said they found files going back to 2006 showing the bank transfers.
The investigator believes Pinnacle West wanted to pay off powerful people in the water industry, so they laundered the money through ACGA and its related entity, the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, in order not to show the money coming directly from them. The investigator found over $10 million he says was laundered this way, and believes there were more incidents in the past.
So far, little has been done, in part due to fear that the Mafia and Mexican drug cartels are involved, and in part due to corruption in government and law enforcement.
But things may be changing, due to an email that Jacquelyn Hughes, the executive director of ACGA, sent to numerous people recently questioning the strange transfer of over $10 million. She said it was unusual that “ACGA, from 2016-2018 was taking in and spending anywhere from $60,000 – $100,000 per month. When you consider that ACGA’s primary source of revenue is membership dues and that our dues range from $75.00 – $450.00 per month, it is unclear both how ACGA came into this type of money and how it was spent. Even when considering annual convention revenue, the numbers do not add up.”
The scandal has resulted in multiple ongoing lawsuits, with ACGA in the middle of it. Under the leadership of Jay Whetton, who was elected president in 2018, the organization’s structure changed in order to give regular members the ability to vote on leadership. This was done in response to accusations that the ACGA was run like a fraternity by country club cowboys who had ties to the Mafia and Mexican drug cartels. The change caused a deep division in the organization, with the old guard splitting off and forming their own group. The new executive committee forged ahead, and last August, held a meeting to discuss how the Mafia and Mexican drug cartels launder money in the cattle industry.
Some of the cattle ranchers accused Emmett Sturgill, who was at the time first vice president of the ACGA and allegedly part of the old guard, of posting information from Operation Cow Posse, which included the names of 56 suspected cow thieves, on the internet in early November. At the same time, Sturgill accused them right back of posting the information and filed lawsuits against them.
The ADA lost interest in the case, which some cattle ranchers believe was due to corruption, and so the investigator continued on his own, unpaid, for Judicial Watch. Sturgill and his allies attempted to retake control of the ACGA in early November but failed. The old guard objected to the investigation, complaining that it was not done by law enforcement. But the new leadership defended the investigation, saying the government and law enforcement were not doing anything about it.
The Cattle Growers’ association in Mojave County resigned its affiliation with the ACGA in disgust at the continuous scandals, and prohibited Sturgil, who lives in the county, from being a member.
The ADA issued a statement a few days ago defending its poor record on investigating cattle rustling, dismissing media reports by saying official reports of thefts weren’t filed. Some of the old guard claim the accusations of cow theft are made up, because certain ranchers want to discredit the government from inspecting cattle and move to a system of private inspectors like they have in Mexico, where corruption is rampant.
But if this was true, then why did well-known Arizona cowboy Milo DeWitt, who lost over 400 head of cattle to theft, ask for assistance from the FBI, county sheriff, brand board and brand inspectors (who are under the ADA), the ADA’s top investigator, Judicial Watch, and meet with investigators several times? Or what about attorney and judge Tom Kelly in Yavapai County, who lost over 100 cows with calves, and complained to two brand inspectors? It sounds like the ADA is mincing words.
One cowboy characterized the problem this way, “Cattle growers in Arizona have no legitimate advocates in the state legislature because the industry is split down the middle; some people siding with the old guard, many of whom are corrupt, and some with the new guard, but the truth is most ranchers don’t really know the whole true story.”
After months of infighting and dealing with lawsuits, the immediate-past president and the first vice president, who was in line to be the next president, resigned their positions and also their membership. The ACGA will be holding its annual election of leaders in a few days. The future of the organization does not look hopeful. One longtime cattle rancher says the situation is impossible to fix, the FBI needs to step in and arrest the bad people. The longtime previous executive director of ACGA, Patrick Bray, a relative of the powerful lobbyist, had access to the bank accounts. Perhaps he can explain what went on with the money.
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