In the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Judge Mark W. Bennett’s courtroom is on the third floor of the federal building dedicated Dec. 29, 1933, and, at the time, called Uncle Sam’s gift to Sioux City. The building is said to be ”a skillful blend of the Stripped Classical and Art Deco styles of architecture.” PA also 025 From his bench in this building, Judge Bennett wrote the final chapters of the story that began almost five years ago when national food safety experts detected a spike in the very common Salmonella serotype Enteritidis (SE). The source of the increased SE cases was found to be two Iowa egg farms owned by the infamous Austin “Jack” DeCoster, who, by 2010, may have been America’s largest egg producer. Because of the SE outbreak, DeCoster recalled more table eggs than anyone else ever has — more than one-half billion. But it would not be before nearly 2,000 confirmed SE infections were linked to the outbreak, with more than 50,000 more suspected as connected. With the criminal case coming down, Jack DeCoster decided to sell off his egg businesses, which were spread between Maine and Iowa and a few places in between. That was all reportedly over before the 81-year-old defendant arrived in the 81-year-old courthouse for sentencing. It was an “old school” ending in every sense, and it quickly became obvious why neither side wanted to go to trial. Too much of this case would have hung on conflicting witness testimony because of a lack of “smoking guns.” Jack and Peter DeCoster managed to run an egg production empire without text messages, emails, and the other electronic records that many now expect to see in these cases. One was left thinking that the DeCosters must have done business by sparse use of “word of mouth.” Or just maybe they knew what was on each other’s minds. Families are often like that. A word or two at breakfast can set a direction for the day or a week. My guess is the government would have won at trial, however, because the pattern of events was just too much. All the items faked and doctored for audits, for example, just cannot be explained away. Defense attorneys don’t want juries ever going through that type of thinking. At the same time, one can understand how the government did not really want to put its investigators on the witness stand. The plea agreement kept them off the stand and spared them from being forced to admit to defense attorneys that, for example, they came up with no evidence that Jack or Peter DeCoster ordered, or knew in advance, that one of their managers was bribing a USDA egg inspector. Nor could they show for certain which script Peter DeCoster was working from in a presentation to retail giant Walmart. One version would contained lies about how flocks were managed on the DeCoster egg farms, but the other did not. Testimony would have been mixed and probably confusing. As it was, the April 13 sentencing hearing might have run on for several days except for two developments. First, prosecution and defense teams stipulated certain facts on the eve of the hearing. Second, Bennett used certain other findings from the sentencing report in writing his 68-page opinion. There was also an “old school” element to the sentencing. The DeCosters must now decide whether to keep employing their top-drawer legal talent to appeal the issue that could keep them out of jail. Bennett clearly expects them to appeal. Their other option would be to just get it over with, serving one after the other for three months on the old Yankton College campus. It’s now Federal Prison Camp (FPC) Yankton and was listed by Forbes magazine in 2009 as one of “America’s 10 Cushiest Prisons.” Because of their shared business interests — land development in Ohio was mentioned — the father and son do not have to serve their three months at the same time. Jack would go first, with Peter going in when his father gets out. Each would then have to do one year of supervised probation with the usual requirements. Both are convicted as corporate officers of selling adulterated food, a federal misdemeanor.  Their attorneys argued unsuccessfully to Bennett that since the DeCosters did not have actual knowledge of the “strict liability” misdemeanor at the time, they cannot be incarcerated for accepting their responsibility for it. The judge said they could take that issue up with Congress or the federal Sentencing Guidelines Commission, but he found that his authority extended to sentencing the pair to jail. If they didn’t go to FCC Yankton, the Bureau of Prisons could place one or both of the DeCosters in a county jail closer to Peter DeCoster’s home in Clarion, IA. The Yankton campus would likely be more comfortable, but it’s farther away for family visitors. Bennett also upheld the financial penalties the men agreed to pay when the plea bargain was reached last June, plus those imposed on Quality Egg LLC. Before they got to court last week, each man had paid $100,000 and Quality Egg had paid $6.79 million. Bennett is holding them jointly responsible for another $83,008.19 in restitution, and they’ve also paid some court costs. The LLC as a corporate entity was convicted of two felony counts — bribery of a public official and adulteration or misbranding, plus the same misdemeanors as the others. Quality Egg LLC was placed on probation for three years. There’s one more thing. The former Quality Egg manager who pleaded guilty on Sept. 12, 2012, to the sole felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States will soon be sentenced. Bennett will sentence Tony Wasmund for disbursement of $300 in petty cash to bribe a now-deceased USDA egg inspector. Wasmund, whose sentencing has been put off a half-dozen times over the past two years, faces a maximum sentence that could include 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, costs, and supervised release of up to 3 years. Conviction as a felon also means losing the right to serve on a jury, hold public office, and possess a firearm and ammunition. Bennett is scheduled to sentence Wasmund, who now lives in Worthington, MN, on Friday, May 15, in the same Sioux City courtroom. Then, except for the expected appeal and potentially doing the time, it will be over.