The federal government is harassing small Montana business owners.

This isn't a conspiracy culled from Twitter. It's not some right-wing radio rant.

It's what the federal government concluded as it looked at the actions of its employees in the Food Safety and Inspection Service, known as the FSIS, here in Montana.

And yet even after federal investigators turned up credible evidence of repeat harassment, some of which threatened the livelihood of several Montanans, leaders within the U.S. Department of Agriculture have refused to discipline the employees, and they appear to have kept jobs. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the head of the Montana circuit, Dr. Jeffrey Legg, is continuing a long pattern of harassing small meat processors and producers.

In a three-part investigative series, The Montana Standard talked to small meat processing plants and butchers who need the federal certification to ship meats to restaurants and across state lines. Through his excellent reporting, the newspaper's report demonstrates a pattern of harassment and businesses being written up for rules that simply don't exist.

The FSIS has the power to shut down these producers; in other words, their entire livelihood hangs in the balance of one vindictive federal employee.

Remember agriculture is Montana's largest economic sector. We hear leaders on the local, state and federal level talk about how Montana should be exporting more and finding ways to add value to our wonderful agricultural sector. And yet when folks like Bart Riley of Riley's Meats in Butte have invested to become exactly the kind of business that leaders tout, he is nearly destroyed by a fickle inspection service which seems hellbent on trying to regulate Riley and others out of business.

We'd like to believe this is just the bad actions of one very petty federal employee, Dr. Legg, for whom these arbitrary rules have become nicknamed "Legg's regs."

But we fear it isn't just Legg.

Even though the federal government has admitted it has been systematically harassing Riley (and likely others who have experienced similar treatment) the USDA refuses to remove him or change its ways. This suggests that the USDA's approach to small Montana producers is both intentional and systematic. We're guessing that the federal government doesn't like messing around with smaller producers in faraway places like Montana, so it sends the message to its staff here to make it difficult for them.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been to Montana once to gladhand farmers and ranchers. Maybe he should come back and look into the eyes of some of the processors whose businesses have been threatened. We bet his trip wouldn't be quite as pleasant.

The federal food inspectors would rather deal with only the largest meat packers and producers, so guys like Riley and, in fact, the entire state of Montana is seen as a nuisance.

Now, it's time for our Congressional delegation to become a nuisance to the USDA and its food inspection branch. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who sits on the agriculture committee, is uniquely placed to actually gets answers and make changes. We are calling for a Congressional investigation into the Food Safety Inspection Service. We'd like to know in public and on the record:

• Why has the federal government tolerated harassment of small businesses?

• What will it do to discipline those employees who engaged in the harassment and what will it do to change policies to ensure the fair treatment of processors, producers and packers of any size?

• What can be done to establish greater transparency so that this agency becomes more accountable?

• What can be done to help small in-state producers ship products beyond Montana's borders?

• What assurances will the USDA give to make sure this never happens again?

If there ever was a time for our congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, to stand together and stand up for Montana business, this is it.

For all the lofty talk of selling our beef to China, we'd point out to Daines, who is a leading champion of that notion, that it's going to be pretty hard to sell our beef to China when we can't even get into Montana restaurants. Skip China, worry about what's happening here with America.

Maybe the most unbelievable part of this investigation is that no one in the federal government will talk or give answers. That's why a very public congressional investigation is warranted.

We asked for documents, interviews and explanations. At every turn for nearly two years — yes, this story took nearly two years of meticulous research — federal officials refused to answer questions. Scores of documents came back heavily redacted or denied altogether. We received USDA reports and the actual admission of six cases of intentional harassment from producers, not from the government, which steadfastly rejected or ignored the requests.

That leads us to wonder: What else is being hidden?

We won't know until someone with oversight and power holds them accountable.

Sens. Daines and Tester, and Rep. Gianforte: It's time to do some grilling.

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