Samuel Lightsey, the former processing plant manager for Peanut Corporation of America at Blakely, GA, entered guilty pleas late Wednesday to multiple federal felony counts stemming from the deadly 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak.
Lightsey and the government reached a plea agreement for cooperation against other defendants in exchange for sentencing consideration to keep his prison term at no more than six years.
Along with three other former executives of the now-defunct PCA, Lightsey pleaded not guilty in February 2013 on all 76 felony counts charged in a federal grand jury indictment. His plea agreement is similar to one the government reached with Daniel Kilgore at the time it was bringing those indictments. Kilgore was PCA’s operation manager at the Blakely, GA, plant from 2002-2008.
Both top managers are now available to the government as witnesses at the trial, scheduled to begin July 14. The remaining defendants are Stewart Parnell, PCA’s former chief executive officer; Michael Parnell, PCA’s former vice president and peanut broker, and Mary Wilkerson, PCA’s former manager of quality control.
While it is not known how long Lightsey’s Birmingham-based Parkman & White defense team might have been in negotiations with government attorneys, the change-of-plea hearing was announced with only about a day’s notice.
“Stewart Parnell is disappointed and saddened to learn that the two employees entrusted by PCA to manage the Blakely plant have acted contrary to clear policies set forth by PCA and, apparently, in violation of federal law,” defense attorney Scott Austin told Food Safety News. Austin heads the Roanoke, VA-based Gentry Locke trial team defending Parnell that also includes Tom Bondurant and Justin Lugar. His team still expects to go to trial.
“Stewart has not accepted a plea nor has he changed his plea,” Austin said.
Until he entered a guilty plea on Wednesday, Lightsey was going to trial this summer with the Parnells, who are brothers, on all federal felonies charged, including multiple counts of conspiracy, introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, interstate shipments fraud, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. His role will now be that of a government witness.
Wilkerson is being tried at the same time for two counts of obstruction of justice.
All the charges followed a four-year FBI investigation into the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 700 people and killed nine. The pathogen was sourced back to the peanut butters and paste produced by the Lynchburg, VA-based PCA at processing plants in Blakely, GA, and Plainview, TX. Government attorneys believe they can prove the executives knew that the product they shipped was contaminated.
UPDATE: Now public court documents show Lightsey plead guilty on just seven of the 76 counts that were in the original indictment. The seven carry maximum statutory penalties of 76 years in prison, fines of $1.75 million, and 17 years of supervised release. In exchange for his cooperation, government attorneys are recommending Lightsey instead get no more than six years in prison with no fine amount mentioned.
The seven counts he has pleaded guilty on are: 1.) Conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud; 2.) Conspiracy to introduce adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud; 3.) Introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud; 4.) Introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud; 5.) Interstate shipments fraud; 6.) Wire fraud; and 7.) and obstruction of justice.
In the plea agreement government attorneys say the “terminated” counts against Lightsey would have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, but the defendant lacks sufficient knowledge, information or belief to either admit or deny them. Lightsey also waives certain appeal rights in the agreement.
He remains free on bond until sentencing and available to provide “complete, candid and truthful testimony regarding such matters in any proceeding. Whether he provides “substantial assistance” to the government is not based on whether the others are convicted at trial.
Lightsey’s change of plea hearing took two hours to complete. The sentencing date has not been set.
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