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PCA’s Former Plant Manager Cross-Examined by Defense Team

Samuel Lightsey, the former Peanut Corporation of American (PCA) plant manager with the government plea deal, spent more than six days on the witness stand answering every question put to him by prosecutors. On Tuesday, defense attorneys for the three former PCA executives on trial for a total of 71 federal felonies got their chance to cross-examine him.

Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., from Stewart Parnell’s defense team, got the first crack at the government’s star witness.

Bondurant quickly moved to cast doubt on several of the prosecution’s narratives about the case. He called into question whether former PCA owner Stewart Parnell was really running the Blakely, GA, plant from rural Lynchburg, VA, since Lightsey testified that he had authority to run the plant and could make unapproved expenditures up to $5,000.

As to whether all peanut pastes being shipped by the tanker truckload to Kellogg’s were proper, Bondurant zeroed in on Mexico’s role in the peanut industry. Lightsey acknowledged that Cubero, its Mexican source for peanut paste, gets its peanuts from fields in the U.S. The suggestion was that PCA was satisfying Kellogg’s specifications for American peanuts only, although they may have traveled over the border and back before finally getting to the Battle Creek, MI, company.

Bondurant also attempted to cast doubt on the notion that PCA management could keep what, at the time, was a $12.5-billion food company such as Kellogg’s in the dark about both peanut sourcing and microbiological testing results. He noted that the three audits PCA passed earlier in 2008, before the outbreak that led to the peanut company’s demise, were all done to Kellogg’s specifications.

The American Institute of Baking and auditors Cook & Thurber conducted those three independent audits.

Bondurant also asked Lightsey about the Julian dating system used on the certificates PCA provided to Kellogg’s to document that shipments were proper. Lightsey acknowledged that anyone with knowledge of the Julian system used to date and track shipments would be able to tell if a certificate had been falsified.

With the Julian system commonly used in the food business, Bondurant suggested that somebody at Kellogg’s must have known what was going on.

Bondurant also used the company emails that have been so ponderously introduced at the trial to try and show a more favorable side of his client. For example, he said the government had skipped over one Stewart Parnell response that read, “Let me know so I can tell Nadi the truth.”

Bondurant also drew out Lightsey’s testimony on PCA testing and retesting practices in an attempt to demonstrate that the company followed established protocols.

Lightsey was originally charged with Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and PCA’s former quality control manger Mary Wilkerson. The original February 2013 indictment against the four listed a total of 76 federal felony counts.

Bondurant pressed Lightsey on the details of his May 2014 plea bargain with the government in which the former plant manager pleaded guilty to seven fraud- and conspiracy-related counts. In response to his questioning, the jury learned that Lightsey’s potential jail time was cut from more than 30 years to no more than six.

Since the plea deal also includes language that could result in no jail time at all for Lightsey, Bondurant told the jury that the witness has every reason to make statements to help the government incarcerate the other three defendants.

Michael Parnell’s defense attorney, Ed Tolley, was second at bat during Lightsey’s cross-examination. He went back to the Kellogg’s shipments, which his client brokered. Those shipments began in mid-2007 and continued until January 2009.

Tolley depicted his client as detached from PCA and not attending corporate meetings. The deal he brokered with Kellogg’s required sourcing peanut from U.S. fields, without any misbranding or adulteration and with a “pure food” guarantee. Kellogg’s controlled the shipping schedules.

Finally, Tom Ledford, defense attorney for Wilkerson, used a video of the plant, taken by FDA investigators during the Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 and killed nine, to show the jury that it was in a clean condition.

In response to Ledford’s questioning, Lightsey said Wilkerson was key to PCA’s product recall, which followed once the company was targeted as the source of the outbreak. Even though he removed her as manager of quality control on Dec. 1, 2008, Lightsey acknowledged that Wilkerson continued to work on the company recall following the outbreak.

Lightsey said he and Wilkerson were PCA’s last two employees, working up until the company bankruptcy was filed.

© Food Safety News
  • Keith Warriner

    The points raised by the defense are the reasons why criminal prosecution will never work in punishing processors implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks. CEO’s became experts in business not food production or safety so can they be held responsible for frontline managers? I suspect in this case the conclusion will be no.