For the third time in as many months, leading Kentucky politicians find themselves addressing cockfighting.
A new federal case brings questions about the bloodsport to a top state Democratic lawmaker and puts the practice back into conversations about the U.S. Senate race.
Federal authorities filed charges against three Eastern Kentucky residents this week in a massive cockfighting ring run out of the Big Blue Sportsman’s Club in McDowell, Ky.
Walter Dale Stumbo, 51, Sonya Stumbo, 51, and Joshua Stumbo, 25, are accused of running one of the country’s largest cockfighting operations, generating an estimated $1 million in revenue.
The three alleged operators of Big Blue are "distant cousins" of Democratic state House Speaker Greg Stumbo, according to the speaker’s office. The three other Stumbos have allegedly alluded to having Greg Stumbo’s support to legalize the practice, though he denies this.
Cockfighting is a misdemeanor in Kentucky, but changes to the national farm bill earlier this year have made it a federal felony to attend such events. In an affidavit included in the court file, Walter Dale Stumbo alleged to a federal investigator that he had talked with the speaker about changing the federal law.
"I never comment on pending litigation, but I do want to say that, as a state legislator, I have no say in federal legislation," Greg Stumbo said in a statement to WFPL.
The investigator, according to the affidavit, alleges that Big Blue was a sophisticated operation involving illegal gambling along with the distribution and use of illegal drugs. It provided professionally-made ID cards for patrons, printed cards with schedules for upcoming cockfights, and a database operated with the names of approximately 6,000 registered participants, the document said.
Federal authorities also allege in the affidavit that people at the center of the cockfighting ring believed likely Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes was a silent supporter of their legalization effort.
In the affidavit, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agent alleged that Walter Dale Stumbo addressed a crowd attending a fowl contest on April 4. According to the agent's written oath, Walter Dale Stumbo said there "were people in Kentucky government that were changing the federal law." According to the affidavit, Walter Stumbo said those leaders couldn’t publicly favor such a proposal, but he later "mentioned Alison Grimes and Greg Stumbo by name."
The Grimes campaign declined to make their candidate available for an interview and did not respond to our questions regarding this story. But in a statement Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said: "Alison was an early advocate for the farm bill that cracked down on this practice and called for (Sen.) Mitch McConnell to support this measure well before he did."
This isn’t the first time a Senate candidate has had to discuss cockfighting. In fact, with Grimes’ response, every leading candidate in the race has now confronted the issue.
In February, cockfighting enthusiasts took McConnell to task for backing the farm bill and the associated penalties for cockfighting.
The president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association told the Lexington Herald Leader it would "destroy" McConnell. During a stop in Eastern Kentucky, supporters confronted McConnell directly and many suggested supporting the senator’s primary opponent Matt Bevin.
A month later, Bevin appeared at a cockfighting rally where he said criminalizing it was wrongheaded. This despite repeated claims by Bevin to reporters that he was against the practice and never discussed it during the March 29 event.
"What you’re seeing is a willingness by Sen. McConnell’s political opponents to basically try to embrace something privately that they won’t embrace publicly," said senior McConnell campaign adviser Josh Holmes.
An official with the Grimes campaign has told WFPL Grimes has never had a conversation "with anyone about cockfighting."
But McConnell’s team said the pattern is troubling.
"I’m not ready to stand here and say Alison Lundergan Grimes has gone to the head of the cockfighting community and said she is willing to repeal the provision," Holmes said. "But what we are saying is that somebody did. I don’t think this individual—who’s now been indicted—would just somehow surface a U.S. Senate candidate’s name out of the blue.”
"All of this started happening about the time that the Herald-Leader published a story about the irritation of some cockfighting enthusiasts with Sen. McConnell about the passage of the farm bill."
Greg Stumbo lives in Prestonsburg, which is in the same Eastern Kentucky county as McDowell.
In an interview Wednesday, Greg Stumbo—who is a political ally of Grimes’—said he had spoken with Walter Dale Stumbo’s brother about the federal farm bill, and stressed that it would make cockfighting a felony and that he couldn’t do anything about it.
The speaker denied discussing the issue with Grimes, laughing it off.
Four years ago, however, Greg Stumbo was much cozier with the controversial practice and said he did not believe cockfighting should be illegal.
It didn’t compare to dog fighting, he said, because people "don’t eat a dog in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant." And many "people argue that it’s a tradition in our country—dates back to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.”
But with cockfighting becoming an increasing political liability due to the farm bill, Greg Stumbo told WFPL on Wednesday he hasn’t attended such an event in about 35 years. He added that he was surprised to read about the allegations of drugs and the Kentucky ring’s connections with Mexican drug gangs.
"And as an elected official, I have not and would not participate in any way form or fashion an activity that is criminal in nature," he said.