ALBANY, GA – U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands on Tuesday approved a schedule for discovery and heard arguments over whether or not former Peanut Corporation of America CEO Stewart Parnell’s co-counsel should remain his lawyer even though concerns have been raised about conflicts of interest.
Ironing out such details will set the stage for the high-profile case, which stems from PCA’s involvement in a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 and killed 9 and will likely go to trail in the fall, after several key discovery deadlines this summer. While there are many complex issues in the case, involving multiple defendants and dozens of counts of fraud and other charges, the issue over whether Parnell’s high-profile Atlanta lawyer, Kenneth B. Hodges, III, should be allowed to represent him at trial has proved a particularly thorny sticking point.
As Food Safety News reported, the government wants to disqualify Hodges for an alleged conflict of interest because he briefly represented Grey and Stewart Adams, Parnell’s daughter and son-in-law, when they were questioned by federal investigators in Washington, DC in September 2012. Since the Adams are considered potential witnesses, though neither was indicted, the concern is that Hodges could end up cross-examining a past client for the defense of a current client.
Resolving the issue is important before the court gets too far into the process, Judge Sands said at a hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in Albany. “It should be resolved early so everyone knows where everyone stands,” he said. The bulk of the hearing on Tuesday focused on the conflicts matter.
Representing the government, attorney Alan Dasher said that the court “must ensure the integrity of the judicial process is preserved” and argued that Hodge’s position “simply cannot be reconciled with.”
Dasher said that the government does not yet know whether it will use either of the Adams as witnesses in trial, “but they are certainly potential witnesses.” The possibility is enough to warrant Hodges be removed as co-counsel, Dasher said, adding that the government believes the risk to the trial outweighs Parnell’s right to representation of his choosing.
Parnell’s lawyers and the Adams are arguing that the conflict is not significant and have filed waivers. “Yes, there is a conflict, but it’s not a serious conflict,” argued one of Parnell’s attorneys present, noting that Hodges had only represented the Adams couple for two days. “There’s no evidence of a serious conflict.”
At the hearing, Judge Sands called up Grey and Stewart Adams and Parnell and asked each of them several questions on whether they understood the full extent and consequences of the waivers they were filing. Each said they did.
“I don’t think it would affect anything at all,” Parnell told the court. He said that having local counsel would help “as far as getting this put behind me.”
Sands tried to emphasize to all three that waiving Hodges conflict could end up harming them or helping them in ways he could not predict since the court has not yet waded through the facts of the case.
“You’re fully wiling to take the risk this might not turn out so good for you?” Judge Sands asked Mr. Adams. All three told the court they had no hesitations about keeping Hodges as Parnell’s co-counsel.
Ultimately, Judge Sands will have to decide whether the conflicts are “waivable.” Next week, the same court will hear Parnell’s request for his passport back.
Pictured: U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in Albany, GA.© Food Safety News