A hearing examiner for the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission has ruled that public statements on Facebook or other social media may not be used by officials to determine whether a licensee's conduct is detrimental to the best interests of the sport.
Penn National officials said critical, vulgar, and threatening Facebook posts by veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Papp were among the reasons she was served with a five-year eviction notice following an incident earlier this year at the Grantville, Pa., racetrack. Papp appealed the ban, and the case was turned over to hearing examiner Suzanne Rauer, who conducted an evidentiary hearing in July. Rauer ruled on Dec. 17 that the racing commission “does not have the statutory or regulatory jurisdiction to review and/or adjudicate (Papp's) statements and opinion on Facebook or other social media” and said evidence in the case could only support a 90-day ejection.
Papp is an outspoken veterinarian who studied at Guelph University and testified before a Congressional subcommittee hearing on horse racing in 2012, saying that the “overuse and abuse of medication is rampant at our Thoroughbred racetracks and training centers.” Papp also was the subject of a critical examination of drugs in racing by NBC News earlier this year. She founded PA Racehorse Rehoming, a non-profit organization to rehabilitate, rehome and rescue ex-racehorses, and is prolific on Facebook, regularly posting animal welfare or anti-horse slaughter messages.
But she also has been involved in several incidents at Penn National and admits that she can be obnoxious or abrasive to people (she once sent a note to this writer asking, “Why are you such a dick?”)
The first incident brought up by Penn National at the July hearing was a 2011 domestic dispute with a former boyfriend in the stable area that was unrelated to racing. Papp was issued a disorderly conduct citation by state police.
The second incident, in September 2013, resulted from a “difference of opinion on the treatment and soundness of a race horse with trainer Allen Shuchman.” The hearing officer's report said both parties “were yelling vulgarities and insults” and that Papp “allegedly swung at Mr. Shuchman but did not make contact.” She received an initial suspension of six months and $500 fine, but the ruling was modified to a 15-day ban and $500 fine.
On May 8, 2014, a horse named Big Alan collapsed and died just past the wire after finishing last in a $12,500 claiming race. As Penn National track veterinarian Dr. Jerry Pack was tending to the stricken horse, Papp took pictures of Big Alan lying on the ground and was allegedly heard having a telephone conversation about ongoing deaths of racehorses at Penn National. Later that evening, according to the hearing examiner's order, Papp posted on her Facebook page “vulgar and accusatory statements regarding the health of horses at Penn National, causes of death, and implications that Penn National race officials are acting improperly.”
Pack, her “friend” on Facebook, saw the comments and apparently alerted Eric Johnston, Penn National's director of racing. Johnston called Papp in for a meeting, warning her that similar conduct and statements about Penn National officials could lead to disciplinary action.
The Penn National “Horsemen's Guide” includes a standards of conduct clause for licensees that says disciplinary action may result from, among other things, “conduct that creates a negative public perception of Penn National Gaming Inc. (the track owner), the racetrack, or undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of pari-mutuel wagering and gaming in general.”
In her findings of fact, hearing examiner Rauer wrote, “Penn National desires to have its horsemen adhere to a set of principles and standards which Penn National has adopted, and which standards complement the Pennsylvania Rules of Racing.” She then added, “There is general public mistrust of the horse racing industry and a general public belief that horses may frequently be illegally drugged.”
On June 25, Bees in My Bonnet, a horse trained by Papp's husband, Monti Sims, and for which she is veterinarian, fell in the Penn National paddock during saddling and struck her head. Pack and state veterinarian Dr. Diane Simoncini treated the horse, detecting blood in both ears, dilated pupils and other symptoms that suggested brain injury and possible skull fracture.
Papp, who said the horse was one of her favorites, came to the paddock and allegedly “disagreed with the treatment being given and got into a verbal altercation with Dr. Pack, demanding that she be allowed to treat Bees in My Bonnet,” according to the hearing examiner. Pack had Papp escorted from the paddock area, then allegedly gave her permission to return, which Papp declined to do so, mistakenly thinking the horse by then was dead. Bees in My Bonnet was subsequently euthanized.
The hearing examiner wrote, “Shortly thereafter, (Papp) again took to Facebook to criticize the actions of Dr. Pack with respect to his treatment of Bees in My Bonnet.”
On July 4, Penn National issued a notice of eviction for five years, based on “actions and behavior in the paddock area prior to the third race on June 25, 2014, including interfering with the actions of racing officials and horsemen, creating unsafe conditions by distracting those attempting to manage the events in the paddock and behavior unbecoming a licensee. Also in consideration of past history of disorderly conduct while on association grounds which include damage of personal property and being disrespectful towards other horsemen.”
Papp appealed and continued to practice at Penn National, having another altercation, this one on July 12 with trainer Marcos Zulueta, who claimed a horse from her husband. “(Papp) exchanged heated words with Mr. Zulueta during the claiming procedure,” the hearing examiner wrote, adding, “Shortly thereafter, (Papp) once again took to Facebook and threatened Mr. Zulueta with physical abuse and made accusations about how Mr. Zulueta treats and trains horses.”
In her analysis of the case, hearing examiner Rauer said the “findings of fact clearly establish that (Papp) has a history of inappropriate conduct at the track and disrespectful behavior toward other horsemen,” adding that such behavior is “wholly unacceptable.” Rauer also concludes that it is not a “'defense' to her inappropriate conduct, vulgar language and disrespectful behavior that she was/is concerned with the health and well being of the horses involved.”
Rauer, however, concluded, “It was ultimately (Papp's) Facebook posts criticizing Dr. Pack and Penn National that got her ejected from Penn National” and that while Papp “certainly must learn to temper her behavior and her language when dealing with other veterinarians and horsemen at Penn National, to destroy her career and her livelihood by ejecting her from Penn National for a period of five years because of Facebook posts is excessive. This does not mean, however, that similar behavior at Penn National and its racetrack enclosure in the future must be tolerated. (Papp) is on notice that further disruptive behavior will not be treated by this Commission with such leniency.”
In other words, Papp and other licensees will be judged by the Commission for their behavior and actions at Penn National and not by what is said on Facebook or other social media.
“While the Commission certainly understands Penn National's concern with (Papp's) ongoing disrespectful, vulgar and derogatory statements on Facebook and/or other social media, the (Pennsylvania Racing Act) only empowers the commission to review the licensee's ‘conduct' – not her speech.”
Papp was represented by attorney Alan Pincus.
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