When it went through the trial court, the case just seemed like a switch-a-roo scheme that got busted. But now, a consolidated appeal with oral arguments planned is sparking  broader interest because it’s become a question about the jurisdiction of federal courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has allowed the federal government to respond to all three defendants who are raising the same issue. The defendants contend the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and not any U.S. District Court, had jurisdiction over their cases. Midamar-logo_406x250In each case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Richard L. Murphy and Timothy L. Vavricek say the challenges to jurisdiction are the “sole basis” for the appeals. The three appellants are William B. Aossey Jr., his son Jalel Aossey, and the family’s company, Midamar Corp. of Cedar Rapids, IA. The elder Aossey was convicted by a jury trial on 15 counts of what the government calls a “multi-object” conspiracy. The son volunteered to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy, as did the company. Both father and son are in federal custody. The elder Aossey was sentenced to two years in prison for convictions involving making false statements and documents, selling misbranded meat into interstate commerce, falsifying export certificates and mail and wire fraud. Before he went to trial, the Midamar Corp. founder, William B. Aossey Jr, raised the jurisdictional claims with the district court, but his claim was found to be “untimely.” He is now seeking dismissal based the argument the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and not the district court had jurisdiction in the case. Because Jalel Aossey and Midamar Corp. made similar arguments in their appeals, the Eighth Circuit has allowed the three appeals to be consolidated. All three are defended at the appellate level by Birmingham, AL, attorney Jason Ryan Klinowski. The U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa denied the original defense motion because it was found “wholly inapplicable to the indictment.” The senior Aossey has argued the charges he was facing, involving improper branding and labeling of meat, had been reserved by Congress for the exclusive jurisdiction of the Secretary of Agriculture. Gavel and scales of justiceThe district court found “nothing can fairly be read to divest a United States district court of jurisdiction.” But after his conviction, Aossey continued to argue the criminal charges involved fall under the sole jurisdiction of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. His two-year federal prison sentence is to be followed by three years of supervised release with a fine and assessments totaling $61,500. He has been in custody since the July 2015 jury trial, which means he is scheduled to be released next year. Midamar Corp. and Jalel Aossey, who originally faced a 92-count indictment, negotiated a plea agreement with the government, each pleading guilty to a single count. In their appeals, the younger Aossey and the corporation are also seeking dismissal on jurisdictional grounds. They say the proper remedy for their actions should be the “persecutional discretion” of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. The district court also denied their motion, rejecting the argument that it should divest its criminal jurisdiction in the matter. Midamar was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay fines and special assessments totaling $20,400. Jalel Aossey was sentenced to a year and a day to be followed by three years of supervised probation and ordered to pay fines and special assessments totaling $30,100. Midamar Corp. sells Halal certified meat and other food products throughout the world. It faced criminal charges for fulfilling Halal orders with meat from plants, which were not authorized for export to the countries involved, by falsifying documents and other records. “As a USDA-regulted business, Midamar was required to accurately label, mark and brand beef products intended for export from then United States,”government attorneys explained. They said this included the “source of the products.” The foreign countries where the beef products were being exported had specific requirements and restrictions, which required USDA certifications. The government’s response to the appeals says “a tip from a person in Indonesia” led to the USDA investigation that began in late 2009. Investigators found that Midamar and its Halal certifying agent, Islamic Services of Amrica (ISA) had “forged and falsified USDA export documents and certifications for at least 22 shipments of purported Halal beef that totaled 124,000 pounds and was shipped to Malaysia and Indonesia between April 2007 and January 2010. Further, the Investigation found Midamar employees had removed USDA marks of inspection from certain meat products and applied false labels to others. They also created false, counterfeit and forged certificates and other documents. Midamar owners and mangers, salesmen and supervised all knew what was happening, the government says. In its appeal brief, the government says consumers had reason to to rely on “the truthfulness” of Miramar’s representations at the very time the fraud was underway. “The money paid to Midamar was used by Midamar to pay marketing, internet services, payroll, product, rent and shipping expenses, all necessary to promote the ongoing criminal activity,” government attorneys say in the appeal brief. Further, the government contends Midamar was involved in certain “probated acts,” that are specifically identified by Congress. The assistant U.S. Attorneys acknowledged the secretary of Agriculture is empowered by Congress to take administrative and civil actions, but they say the district courts are empowered in “all other kinds of cases.” The assistant U.S. Attorneys say the law does not give the secretary “exclusive jurisdiction” over criminal violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. They say it simply gives the secretary power over false or misleading marketing or labeling. Finally, they argue that another section of law prescribing criminal penalties for violations of the act would be “rendered superfluous” if it did not mean district courts have jurisdiction. Oral arguments are being scheduled for later this year by the St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)