Blue Bell’s former chief executive has waived physical appearance for his initial appearance in federal court on felony charges stemming from a 2015 Listeria outbreak.

The defendant, Paul Kruse, has posted bail and accepted conditions of his continued freedom.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Lane cited the current coronavirus pandemic for accepting the waiver of a physical appearance in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.  

“COVID-19 poses a potential health risk to the court, the court’s staff, Mr. Kruse, counsel for Mr. Kruse, counsel for the United States, and the general public,” Lane ruled. “This risk is mitigated by limiting in-person interactions and appearances when possible. All parties have agreed that the initial appearance can be accomplished either telephonically or virtually and that Mr. Kruse’s physical appearance at the initial appearance is unnecessary.”

Neither the bail amount nor the conditions of Kruse’s release have yet been made public. He was charged May 1 with federal felonies of conspiracy and wire fraud. The charges are related to the 2015 multi-state outbreak of Listeria associated with Blue Bell Creamery’s ice cream production.

Kruse retains his rights to counsel and to a preliminary hearing. He has engaged defense attorneys Chris Flood of Houston and John D. Cline of San Francisco. In addition to his career as an ice cream maker, Kruse is also an attorney.

According to his congressional testimony in 2014, Cline is a critic of “the practical effect of our bloated federal criminal code.” He says it causes the tendency of federal prosecutors to “overcharge.”

When Kruse was charged, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said Blue Bell as a company was separately pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of shipping contaminated products across state lines. In conjunction with the plea, Blue Bell agreed to pay $19.33 million to settle with the U.S. government.

As an individual, Kruse is accused of the federal felony charges of conspiracy with other “known and unknown” Blue Bell employees and six counts of wire fraud regarding email statements others made during the outbreak crisis.

Each count for which he might be convicted puts Krause in jeopardy of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The DOJ has sent two Washington D.C.-based attorneys to Austin to prosecute Kruse. 

Matthew J. Lash and Patrick Hearn are both listed as lead attorneys for the government.

Hearn’s appearance in Austin is no surprise. It was widely reported when the federal investigation got underway in 2015, that Hearn was in the lead from the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch.

He was a key member of the 2014 federal prosecution team that sent Stewart Parnell and other managers of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America to prison for 62 years. In addition to that trial work, the government has won all appeals to date in the PCA criminal case with help from Hearn’s bat.

The 2015 Blue Bell outbreak involved illnesses of 10 people in four states. They all required hospitalization and three died.

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