At Monday’s sentencing that took just short of five hours, the man who was once the largest egg producer in the U.S. finally got to tell his side of the story, one victim’s father spoke for thousands of others, and a lively and talkative judge sometimes left one of the nation’s top defense attorneys searching for words. U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett first acknowledged that there was nothing ordinary about the sentencing of Austin “Jack” DeCoster, his son, Peter DeCoster, and their Quality Egg LLC. The judge said he spent more time preparing for this sentencing than any of the nearly 4,500 others he has handed down in the past 20 years. And if there was not already enough anxiety in the courtroom, Bennett said he was still making up his mind about the sentences to impose, causing the courtroom audience to hang on his words. Was it more important that Bennett said he found the Salmonella outbreak that occurred under the DeCosters’ watch to be “shameful,” or that he admires Jack DeCoster as a truly self-made man and Peter DeCoster for his missionary work in sometimes dangerous parts of the world? During the wait for the judge’s sentence to be imposed, it became increasingly obvious that Jack DeCoster had something to say. At breaks, he paced and spent little time chitchatting with family members who were present in the ornate Sioux City courtroom. His chance came during the time when defendants have the opportunity to speak directly to the judge before sentencing. It came with a warning from Bennett that such statements can help or hurt a defendant, or make no difference whatsoever. For Jack DeCoster, that warning seemed to make little difference as he did have something to say. It was something he probably wanted to say ever since the summer 2010 Salmonella outbreak that forced him to recall more than a half-billion eggs. DeCoster started off in a halting manner, wondering whether the judge could hear him. Bennett was all ears. “Feel we did a lot,” DeCoster told the court. He tried appealing to the judge’s logic by asking what egg producer would “not take care of his chickens properly?” He told of a problem that for his company began in Maine, not in Iowa, and caused him to put his faith in vaccines. His work on the issue began in 2008, finding that it took two vaccines to stem Salmonella levels in his chicken flocks. After the success in Maine, he focused on the Iowa flocks but had not reached the second vaccines before the outbreak hit. DeCoster said his fight against Salmonella ended because “we ran out of time.” He said they ran into trouble with the vaccines because of the negative impact the doses were having on the chickens’ immune systems. He also wanted Bennett to know that he liked the judge, part of that admiration stemming from the fact that Bennett is the same judge who sentenced him in 2003 for hiring more than 100 illegal aliens, some just over the border, to work for his egg operations. “Whatever you do with me,” DeCoster said, “I think you are a great judge.” But when it finally came around to the sentencing, it didn’t appear that DeCoster’s telling of his vaccine story carried much weight with the judge. Before producing the sentences, Bennett read into the record large parts of the Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report detailing practices on the egg farms that he said were part of the culture that led to the 2010 Salmonella outbreak and the historic recall. The passages the judge read into the record included activities such as doctoring audits and other food safety documents. Before that, however, Bennett heard additional arguments the attorneys wanted to make about whether someone convicted of a so-called “strict liability” misdemeanor could be incarcerated for the offense. Jack DeCoster’s Sidney Austin attorneys, including Thomas C. Green, have maintained that jail time is not an option. Both father and son pleaded guilty to the same “strict liability” misdemeanor of allowing adulterated food to enter instate state commerce. In doing to, they admitted no personal knowledge of the crime, only responsibility as corporate officials. Since 1918, when Supreme Court Associate Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo was still on New York Court of Appeals, a doctrine has existed that a judge cannot take someone’s liberty without premeditated conduct, DeCoster attorney Mark D. Hopson said. Bennett called the argument Green and Hopson were making “a novel idea.” In the end, the judge said that if zero jail time was to be the rule for conviction of a strict liability misdemeanor, it should be done by Congress or the Sentencing Guidelines Commission. He acknowledged that the 8th Circuit U.S Court of Appeals might rule differently, but he was not taking the possibility of incarceration off the table. The court also heard from Jason Tucker, a Dallas farmer whose son, now 8, was sickened five years ago by the Salmonella pathogen from DeCoster eggs. “He was almost unrecognizable to us,” Tucker said. The combination of high fever and antibiotic treatments left the boy with a troubling aftereffect, namely that his adult teeth are coming in without being hard enough. It means that the boy must get stainless steel caps, which his father said is making him self-conscious and inclined to “cover his smile.” “I mean it breaks my heart to see that he is going to have metal teeth until he is old enough to get implants,” Tucker said. The boy was one of nearly 2,000 victims with confirmed cases and nearly 60,000 who were likely infected by the contaminated DeCoster eggs. When he returned from lunch, Bennett sentenced both of the DeCosters to three months in jail and and one year of supervised probation. The judge set the jail time aside until appeals in the case run their course. The judge also let all fines stand as were originally outlined in the plea agreement entered last June 3. A total of $7 million has been paid: $6.8 million from Quality Egg LLC and $100,000 each from the two men. Quality Egg, which is essentially now bankrupt, and the DeCosters also share responsibility for paying a restitution amount of $83,008.19. In addition, the company forfeited $10,000 as part of the plea agreement. Quality Egg, an egg production company with operations in Wright County, IA, pleaded guilty to one count of bribery of a public official and one count of introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud, both felonies, and one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor. Jack and Peter DeCoster each pleaded guilty to one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. In the plea agreements, the company and the father and son admitted that the company’s shell eggs were adulterated in that they contained a poisonous and deleterious substance, Salmonella Enteriditis, which may have rendered the eggs injurious to health. During the spring and summer of 2010, adulterated eggs produced and distributed by Quality Egg were linked to thousands of consumer illnesses in multiple states — a nationwide outbreak of salmonellosis that led to the largest raw shell egg recall in U.S. history. “The message this prosecution and sentence sends is a stern one to anyone tempted to place profits over people’s welfare. Corporate officials are on notice. If you sell contaminated food, you will be held responsible for your conduct. Claims of ignorance, or ‘I delegated the responsibility to someone else,’ will not shield them from criminal responsibility,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin W. Techau for the Northern District of Iowa. Former Quality Egg employee Tony Wasmund, 64, of Willmar, MN, pleaded guilty in September 2012 to one count of conspiracy to bribe a public official, selling restricted eggs with intent to defraud, and introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud and mislead. Wasmund is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Bennett on May 15. Also revealed during Monday’s sentencing:
- His attorneys said Jack DeCoster has made charitable contributions totaling $16 million in the past four years. As he sold off his egg businesses from Maine to Iowa, the Irrevocable DeCoster Trust has reached a value close to $300 million.
- The employee charged with bribing a now-deceased USDA egg inspector was once Peter DeCoster’s brother-in-law. There was no evidence that DeCoster had prior knowledge of the transaction.
- If they do report for jail, Jack DeCoster would prefer a local county jail in Iowa, while Peter DeCoster’s choice would be a federal minimum security facility in Yankton, SD.