On Thanksgiving eve, 83-year-old Austin “Jack” DeCoster surrendered to federal prison authorities in Massachusetts, about 40 miles west of Boston.
DeCoster traveled from his home in Turner, ME, about 170 miles north of the “administratively secure” Federal Medical Center – Devens (FMC Devens), a unit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The man who was once among the most significant egg producers in the United States will, for the next three months, be BOP inmate No. 02686-029.
Instead of heading the dining room table back in Maine for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner, DeCoster found himself sharing a meal with unfamiliar faces at the prison for male inmates needing specialized or long-term medical or mental health care. Among the 1,126 inmates at Devens, including 137 at the adjacent minimum security satellite camp are:
- Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff’s 72-year-old brother Peter Madoff, serving 10 years for securities fraud;
- 54-year-old Danny Heinrich, doing 20 years for child pornography but better known for his recent confession in the 1989 kidnapping and murder of a Minnesota boy; and
- Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, convicted for sex-texting photos of his private parts to an underage girl.
Like son, like father
The BOP released 54-year-old Peter DeCoster on Oct. 23, after he served 90 days at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, MN. The medical or mental condition that required the younger DeCoster’s incarceration at one of BOP’s premier healthcare facilities has not been made public.
“Jack” DeCoster, however, has been entirely public about his medical needs. He asked for assignment to the Satellite Prison Camp at FCI Berlin, NH. He said it was the “closest minimum security facility to his family that would allow for meaningful visitation” and permit “consulting with a cardiologist and having certain cardiac tests performed, as recommended by his primary care provider in response to recent episodes of dizziness and weakness.”
At FMC Devens, the elder DeCoster will be under the care of cardiology specialists, and the medical center does not hesitate to take its inmates off campus for care.
His time at the prison, on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s former Fort Devens, is going to mean DeCoster will have to get used to a schedule that includes as many as six roll calls a day, including one at 3 a.m.
“Jack” DeCoster reported to the federal medical prison two years and seven months after being sentencing by a federal judge who had mixed feelings about the egg man.
“What really makes Jack DeCoster’s case unique is the fact that he is a business crime defendant who has a record of other business crimes,” said federal sentencing Judge Mark W. Bennett.
The DeCoster family corporation Quality Egg LLC along with corporate officials Peter and “Jack” DeCoster pleaded guilty in federal court in Sioux City, IA, in 2014. The plea deal was part of an agreement by which Quality Egg and the DeCosters accepted responsibility for a 2010 Salmonella outbreak that is estimated to have sickened as many as 56,000 people in the United States.
Quality Egg entered pleaded guilty to felony bribery of a public official, introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with intention to defraud or mislead, and introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. For the three-count conviction, including the felony, the corporation paid a $6.8 million fine.
The father and son from the DeCoster family pleaded guilty only to one misdemeanor count of putting misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead. Each was fined $100,000 and together the DeCosters were charged $83,000 in restitution.
Judge Bennett added the 90-day sentences in what the DeCosters claimed was an out-of-bounds move in relation to their plea agreements.
Defense attorneys argued against the sentences in the U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa, in the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and all the way to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. They said that jailing the DeCosters was not an option. They’d pleaded guilty, the lawyers told the courts, as “responsible corporation officials” for an offense they had no personal knowledge about.
At sentencing, Bennett admitted as much. Sioux City’s federal judge said “it is true that there is no evidence that Austin Jack DeCoster or Peter DeCoster had actual knowledge of all of the horrendous sanitary conditions related to, and un-objected to, in the presentence report. But how could you be a chief operating officer and somebody who’s been described as a very hands-on in terms of Austin Jack DeCoster, it’s shocking to me that somebody could run a company like this and not know about it.”
Bennett gave the DeCosters the “benefit of the doubt” because there was no evidence they knew about the condition of the eggs their company shipped.
“You darn well should have known about it,” the judge said. “I don’t know how you could be chief operating officer and (not) know that this is massively circumventing food safety regulations,” Bennett said.
“You two were the captain(s) of the ship, and the ship went down.”
Judge Bennett also cited redacted parts of the government’s pre-sentencing report that show the DeCosters’ sanitation and pest control ranged from shoddy to non-existent between 2006 and 2010.
Bennett acknowledged “Jack” DeCoster as “self-made man” man.
“You earned it the hard way, and you became fabulously wealthy,” the judge said, moments before adding jail time to the fines and restitution payments.
It’s fair to say “Jack” DeCoster is in prison today because he finally ended up in a federal courtroom with a judge who knew his history.
Food safety violations were only the latest in a long record of infractions that had often put “Jack” DeCoster on the opposite site of governors and cabinet secretaries. His egg empire stretched from Maine to Iowa, and both of those states in the 1990s fined DeCoster repeatedly.
Iowa labeled “Jack” DeCoster as a “habitual violator” of the state’s environmental regulations, banning him from expanding in the state. He did so anyway, keeping his interests secret until the ban expired.
Female employees at one of the DeCosters’ Iowa egg production facilities filed a sexual harassment and assault lawsuit. It cost DeCoster $1.5 million to settle. He agreed to conduct employee training.
DeCoster’s had also previously pleaded guilty to the federal offense of knowingly hiring illegals aliens in 2003. Then, 51 illegal workers were arrested at six DeCoster egg farms in Iowa in 2007, but DeCoster did not even face a probation violation.
And, two months before the 2010 Salmonella outbreak, DeCoster pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges in Maine after animal activist took undercover video of the conditions of egg-laying hens.
Bennett allowed the DeCosters to remain free while they appealed the “responsible corporate official” issue. An Eighth Circuit appeals panel voted 2-1 to uphold Bennett’s sentencing decision. When the St. Louis court declined any further review, attorneys for the DeCosters filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The DeCosters gained support from the broader business community on the issue. The National Association of Manufacturers, Cato Institute, Washington Legal Foundation, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America all supported the DeCosters in amicus briefs.
Jailing corporate officials who did not have personal knowledge of a crime is not constitutional, the big business interests argued. They also said the issue is ripe for the Supreme Court because rulings now vary by circuit.
However, on May 22 the U.S. Supreme Court opted to not hear the case.
It meant their issue might remain unresolved, but it’s jail time for “Jack” DeCoster.
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