Courts Will Continue to Be Food Safety Enforcement's Big Stick in 2016

By Pamela Sweeten

Criminal courts have played a prominent role in food safety during both 2014 and 2015, and that will continue in 2016. We know that much for certain just by the amount of work the courts are carrying over into the New Year.

We also know know the continuation of the restitution hearing before U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands on Jan 26, 2016 will not be a reunion of the Peanut Corporation of American trial defendants.

That’s mainly because Michael Parnell would sooner be transported to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility than spend any more time in the Crisp County jail where he’s been housed since he was sentenced to spend 20 years in a federal prison.

Whether his brother, Stewart Parnell, is also being held at the jail located in Cordell, GA isn’t known for sure, but it’s likely. The Parnell brothers were held in the Crisp County jail for the weekend after the 2014 trial until their bail amounts were set and paid.

It appears that Stewart Parnell along Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, the two former PCA managers at Blakely, GA who reached plea agreements with the government, will appear at the Jan. 26th hearing in Albany, GA.

Judge Sands on Dec. 2 ordered the Bureau of Prisons to see that the prisoners are transported. Lightsey is at the federal lockup at Forest City, AR and Kilgore is doing his time at Oakdale, LA. The fifth PCA defendant, Mary Wilkerson, is also not involved in the restitution hearing because her crime of obstruction of justice occurred during the investigation not while the criminal enterprise was ongoing.

One big difference for the new year is that the judicial lifting over food safety no longer just includes the U.S. Districts Courts, which are best known for handling criminal trials. In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th and 11th Circuits will be considering two important sets of appeals involving food safety.

In the 8th Circuit, Austin (“Jack”) and Peter DeCoster have filed appeals to their sentences to federal prison, each for three months, after pleading guilty to a single federal misdemeanor where no facts existed of the men having a “guilty mind.” In other words, they acknowledge something wrong occurred, but the record says it was without any advanced knowledge or intent.

In the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, defense attorneys for Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael, and a third defendant tried by the same jury in 2014, Mary Wilkerson, are appealing both their convictions and their sentences.

The issue in the appeal with the greatest long term impact on future food safety investigations is whether the 11th Circuit agrees with the District Court that it was proper to treat test reports as ordinary business records. Ordinary business records do not require that each be subjected to witness status allowing for cross examination and other rights. It’s key to the way the government prosecuted the defendants in the Peanut Corporation of American criminal case, which resulted in five food manufacturers being imprisoned for a combined 62 years.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis is drawing crowds of lawyers over the DeCoster appeal. Several major business organizations have filed Amicus briefs in support of the DeCoster side. At the time time, numerous labor and environmental groups are concerned about losing a potent weapon in a whole variety of white collar crime cases. The visibility of the case is likely to grow as it nears a decision.

Back in the district courts, among the unfinished business is the sentencing of Jesse J. Amaral Jr. and three other defendants over their scheme to sell cattle with cancerous eyeballs.

Amaral, the one-time owner of the Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, CA had his sentencing delayed by U.S. District Court for Northern California so he could work on settling civil litigation in California courts. The state litigation stems from his business being shutdown once USDA discovered the processing of diseased cattle. Moree than $20 million in claims are involved.

When Amaral does report for sentencing, now scheduled for 2 p.m., Feb. 10, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer has warned him to be “prepared to surrender at that time.” The three other defendants are to be sentenced after Amaral. Robert W. Singleton, who owned Rancho Veal and the slaughterhouse property and equipment, and yardman, Eugene D. Corda, are now scheduled to be sentenced at 2 p.m., on March 2, 2016. The last sentencing, of Rancho foreman Felix Sandoval Cabrera, is set for 2 p.m. on March 23, 2016.

Amaral plead guilty on Feb. 18, 2015 to conspiracy to distribute adulterated, misbranded and not inspected meat. Amaral, Corda and Cabrera were originally named in a 11 count indictment unsealed on Aug. 22, 2014. Singleton already had a plea agreement for a single count of distributing bad meat.

Rancho’s foreman and yardman carried out the scheme to remove “USDA Condemned” stamps from carcasses with eye cancers and process the cattle without the knowledge of USDA inspectors.When discovered, Rancho was forced to cease operations and recall all production from the Petaluma slaughterhouse from Jan. 1, 2013 to Jan. 7, 2014. It was a massive recall involving 8.7 million pounds of beef for up to 40,000 retailers. Also hurt were other businesses that used Rancho’s custom slaughter services, including several grass fed producers.

Not yet scheduled, but likely to occur soon in U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa is the sentencing of the defendants associated with the Cedar Rapids, IA-based Midamar Corp. and its associated Islamic Services of America. The defendants are charged in a scheme where USDA establishment numbers were changed so the beef product that would not have been accepted for import in Muslim dominated nations, like Indonesia and Malaysia, were slipped past the Halal requirements of those nations.

The first defendant, William B. Aossey Jr. was convicted by a jury last July of 15 of the 19 counts in the indictment. He was taken into custody after the trial.

The other defendants reached plea agreements with the government ahead prior to a second trial. Midamar, ISA, and two of Aossey’s sons, Jalel and William “Yahya” Aossey are all also awaiting sentencing. Midamar, ISA and Jalel Aossey plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy, while “Yahya” Aosssey pled guilty to two counts of selling misbranded meat.

In addition, the two corporations have forfeited $600,000 to federal government.

The sentencing might have occurred by now except all the defendants are disputing information in the pre-sentence investigative reports that have been prepared for the judge. It is not known what those objections are as both the reports and disputed information are sealed.

Also in the Middle District of Georgia, Judge Sands has yet to schedule a sentencing date for ConAgra’s entry of a guilty plea for a single count of distributing an adulterated product associated with the 2006 Salmonella outbreak involving Peter Pan peanut butter made at its Sylvester, GA plant.

—Pamela Sweeten, Principal, P. Sweeten Consulting

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Categories: Litigation