AUSTIN — Richard S. “Ricky” Dickson, the current President at Blue Bell Creameries, testified Wednesday as a government witness against his predecessor and one-time mentor, Paul Kruse.
Dickson took over from Kruse in 2017 at the Brenham, TX, company known for its flagship brand of Blue Bell ice creams.
He testified on the third day of Kruse’s jury trial for conspiracy and fraud charges stemming from a deadly 2015 listeriosis outbreak. Three people died in the outbreak, which sickened at least 10.
During the outbreak, which ended with Blue Bell shutting down its production facilities and recalling all its products, Dickson was Vice President of Sales and second in the company only to Kruse.
Under questioning from defense attorney Chris Flood of Houston, Dickson acknowledged that he was the subject of a “target” investigation by the federal Department of Justice beginning in 2019, two years after he became Blue Bell president.
He then obtained a personal attorney and worked out a “non-prosecution agreement” with the Department of Justice, including at least one session in Washington D.C. He said that “telling the truth” was his only obligation under the agreement.
Dickson is a Blue Bell veteran who held top sales and production jobs over four decades before moving into C-suite.
Dickson was vice president of sales during the 60-odd days cited in the indictment.
His testimony on Wednesday primarily consisted of claiming that Kruse and Kruse alone determined Blue Bell’s messaging during the outbreak. Blue Bell’s outbreak crisis began on Feb. 13, 2015, when two of 10 of its products tested positive for Listeria by South Carolina’s food lab.
Those products were produced in Brenham, TX, on a so-called gram machine in an area separate from primary ice creme production. Dickson claims he wanted an immediate recall, but Kruse opted for a “withdrawal” of the products that tested positive, eventually expanded to all products made on the gram machine.
Dickson said he went along: “This was brand new to me.”
In later testimony Wednesday, it came out that Kruse did report the South Carolina findings to FDA’s Reportable Food Registry and was likely working with the federal regulators from that point onward.
It is possible that the Kruse plan to dispatch Blue Bell’s 1,500 driver/salespeople to pick up the suspect products was at least shared with FDA ahead of time.
Dickson said he still considers Kruse a friend, and he acknowledged that when Kruse was a law student, he helped Dickson do an undergraduate study of Blue Bell.
As Blue Bell’s president, Dickson has expanded the company’s reach and sales along with its offerings of flavors.
However, he may be best known for settling the corporation’s criminal problems with the federal government.
Under Dickson, the company agreed to pay criminal penalties totaling $17.5 million and $2.1 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under unsanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities, including the military.
The total $19.35 million in fines, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments was the second-largest amount to resolve a food safety matter.
In addition to Dickson, the prosecution called school district, hospital, and restaurant personnel who were Blue Bell customers in 2015 and were not satisfied by the explanations they were given for the project withdrawals. Most were told of “machine problems” or quality issues, but nothing about the Listeria investigation.
Those testifying said none of the patients, students, or customers became sick, but the experience caused them to terminate buying Blue Bell products.
The jury trial will complete its first week on Friday. The trial judge has warned the jury to plan for at least two more weeks.
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