Dr. Sarah Jean Mason of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services pleaded guilty Wednesday in Hoke County District Court to impeding an investigation into animal cruelty at a Butterball turkey farm.
She was sentenced to 45 days in jail on two misdemeanor charges, but that sentence was suspended pending a year of probation. Also, the Agriculture Department on Monday suspended her for two weeks without pay.
The scandal broke when an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, used a hidden camera at the farm about 90 miles south of Raleigh to capture videos of workers kicking, dragging and throwing turkeys, as well as graphic images of some severely injured birds.
After getting a warrant, deputies raided the Butterball location on Dec. 29 to determine the conditions of the turkeys and their environment.
Before the raid, Hoke County investigators contacted the state agriculture office for advice on how to proceed. On Dec. 23, Mason contacted Dr. Eric Gonder, a veterinarian employed by Butterball, and informed him of the video.
The district attorney's release said the investigation determined that Mason acted alone and that none of her superiors knew of the call or false statements.
In addition to providing confidential information during a pending criminal investigation, she was charged with giving false statements to the Hoke County Sheriff's Department, according to a state district attorney press release.
Mason, director of animal health programs in the department's poultry division, said in a statement that she was only trying to curtail animal cruelty at the farm. Department of Agriculture spokesman Brian Long said the investigation showed Mason informed Butterball of the video but not of the criminal investigation.
The fact that Mason gained nothing for her information was a factor as the state considered punishment, he said.
"She has a good track record within the department. She has a good reputation for honesty and integrity. So this instance was out of character for her," Long said.
Hoke County deputies arrested three other people in the case, according to a sheriff's office release. Ruben Mendoza, 25, and Terry Bernard Johnson, 45, were charged with misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Mendoza and a third employee, Jose Garcia, 29, were charged with felonious obtaining of property by false pretenses and felonious identity theft.