Pre-sentencing investigative reports (PSIRs) for America’s one-time king of egg production, Austin (Jack) DeCoster, his son Peter, and their Quality Egg LLC business, have turned into a legal mess.
While the PSIRs themselves are sealed, the public now knows a little more about details of the disputed information from a new motion that’s been filed with a potential solution for working through the controversy.
Jack DeCoster was one of the most dominant figures in U.S. egg production before a 2010 Salmonella outbreak, which sickened thousands of people, was linked to two of his large Iowa egg production facilities.
It resulted in more than a half-billion eggs being recalled, the largest market withdrawal involving shell eggs in history. Peter DeCoster ran the northern Iowa egg farms. The two men pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count each of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
In addition, their corporate entity, Quality Egg, pleaded guilty to one felony count of bribery of a public official and to two misdemeanors — one count of introducing misbranded food and one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
A federal judge in Sioux City, IA, accepted those pleas last June 3, but the dispute over the PSIRs is turning out to be more than a legal speed bump. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Peter E. Deegan, wants to consolidate the sentencing proceedings for a possible weeklong evidentiary hearing. Separate sentencing hearings would then follow.
According to Deegan, defense attorneys are split over his plan. He says that Stuart J. Dornan, the Omaha, NE-based defense attorney for Peter DeCoster, “has no objection to the relief sought in this motion.” However, Thomas C. Green, the Washington, D.C.-based defense attorney for Jack DeCoster and Quality Egg does “object to the relief sought ….”
Under the plea agreement they have with the government, the DeCosters were to each pay a $ 100,000 fine for their misdemeanor pleas, and Quality Egg agreed to a $ 6.8-million fine. Sentencing is mostly about whether either man will serve any jail time.
In late August, first the government filed objections to the PSIRs. Then Green filed objections for Jack DeCoster and Quality Egg. The most recent objections were filed Sept. 18 on behalf of Peter DeCoster.
Government and defense attorneys have agreed that sentencing guideline calculations will have to be approved by the court. The defense apparently finds much of the “offense conduct” section of the pre-sentence investigative reports to be either irrelevant or “not otherwise supported by the evidence.”
In his pitch to the court, Deegan says that the “greatest difference of any significance” among the parties concerns the write-ups about how “Julian dates” were changed and then the misbranded eggs were sold into commerce.
“Despite this difference in the Draft PSIRs, the government submits that the fact Quality Egg sold old eggs is relevant to the circumstances surrounding the Salmonella Enteritis contamination at issue with regard to Count 3, and therefore all three sentencings,” Deegan wrote.
The assistant U.S. attorney argues that since disputed facts among the three defendants are consistent, one hearing would be the most efficient for the court and prevent witnesses from having to testify three times.
“A consolidated evidentiary hearing would not appear to cause prejudice to any defendant or other interested party,” Deegan added. “To the extent defendants Quality Egg and Jack DeCoster are concerned that certain evidence may prove to be irrelevant to one sentencing or the other, the Court would be able to make such a determination after a consolidated hearing.”
Deegan said it might even be more appropriate for the court to make such determinations after hearing the evidence.