Last September, I testified as a character witness for my friend Stewart Parnell, the former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Afterwards, Federal Judge A. Louis Sands, Sr. announced his sentences: 28 years in a federal penitentiary for Stewart, 20 years for his brother Michael and five years for PCA auditor Mary Wilkerson. They were incarcerated immediately.
I’ve known Stewart Parnell since 1968 when we played JV football at Brookville High School. Over the next four years, we played football, ran track, worked together as part-time janitors and painters, attended church, hunted together and formed a close friendship that has lasted the rest of our lives. My wife and I named our only son after him. He is a friend I will always admire and respect.
However, one cannot deny that the picture presented of this good man since the PCA salmonella charges has been anything but good. Didn’t 600 people become ill and nine people die from salmonella contaminated peanuts because of his greediness and disregard for the law?
Fair question. And, here is my answer.
First, the court of public opinion is very powerful but often forms opinions on shallow evidence. Mark Twain once quipped, “If you don’t read the papers you are uninformed. If you do read the papers you are misinformed.” In this age of 24-hour news and digital media, the great author’s words are more true than ever. Opinions in our busy world are based on sound bytes and snippets, and media outlets provide the supply to meet the demand. It’s simple economics.
Despite the absurd condemnations by many in the media, the Parnells were counseled by their attorneys to remain silent. Their silence provided a deafening voice for the federal prosecution. The court of public opinion rendered its verdict well before the trial began four years later.
Second, one must be mindful of the potential abuse of power when the federal government mobilizes its law enforcement, political, and judicial assets against a private citizen. This is exactly what happened in late January and early February 2009. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was under scrutiny because they stumbled during investigations of a 2006 lettuce and spinach salmonella outbreak and a 2008 tomato and pepper salmonella outbreak. No company or individual was prosecuted in either case. Concerned citizens demanded action.
Thus, when the peanut salmonella case broke in January 2009, the FDA was under pressure to respond quickly and forcibly. Lead FDA inspector for the case, Janet Gray, testified at the PCA trial that she was under tremendous pressure from her superiors to bring a guilty party before the American public. Other FDA and Center for Disease Control (CDC) documents and emails substantiate the pressure from high within the government to deliver a perpetrator.
The normally slow wheels of the federal bureaucracy turned with lightening speed in early 2009. First, were reports of a salmonella outbreak, then a link to a small peanut processing facility in Blakely, Ga., followed by more leaks to the media, a spectacular congressional hearing and finally a massive probe by multiple federal authorities led by the Department of Justice. Over the next four years, the federal government spent thousands of man-hours and millions of taxpayer dollars prosecuting the case. The results were devastating for the Parnells, small players within the massive food industry. They lacked the monetary resources and political clout of bigger players like Dole, ConAgra or Monsanto.
Third, the evidence related to the alleged dead and ill victims described early in the case by the federal government was so convoluted it was barred from the PCA trial. Furthermore, the post-trial restitution case (to determine how much money each victim would receive) relieved the PCA defendants of paying compensation.
Judge Sands reported April 6, 2016, “Having exercised its discretion to determine the amount of restitution, if any, to be ordered following sentencing and entry of judgment, the Court now finds that 18 U.S.C. § 3663A’s mandatory restitution requirement does not apply because of the complex issues of fact related to identifying victims and calculating their losses. The Defendants shall pay no restitution.” So ... the “victims” were not really victims after all?
Fourth, compare sentences from the largest food contamination cases since the PCA case. In 2010, Austin Decoster and his son Peter were found guilty of distributing contaminated eggs from Quality Egg Company in Iowa. Employees were charged with lying to inspectors, falsifying shipping dates, bribing a federal inspector and failing to follow established cleanliness guidelines. The father and son were sentenced to three months in jail but have yet to serve the sentence. Their company paid $6.8 million in fines. The CDC reported at least 56,000 people were sickened from consuming the contaminated eggs.
In 2011, Colorado brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were charged with distributing cantaloupes contaminated with listeria bacteria. They pleaded guilty and received five years probation, 100 hours community service and paid $150,000 in restitution to victims. Twenty-nine people died in the deadliest food contamination case in the last one hundred years.
Finally, in 2014, food distribution giant ConAgra plea bargained with the federal government to close a 2006-2007 case of salmonella contamination in peanut butter. They paid an $11.2 million fine. No individual was sentenced or fined. At least 700 people were sickened by the salmonella poisoning, probably many more.
These punishments were nothing compared to those PCA employees received, yet there were far more people harmed than in the PCA case.
These are reasons I defend my friend. His legal team will present many of these points and dozens of others in the appeal process which will begin soon. The tears and pain suffered by the Parnell family can never be erased, but if justice is served, it will reassure us that our laws still work — despite the court of public opinion.
Smith, a native of Central Virginia, is a retired USAF lieutenant colonel and now a pilot for a major U.S. Airline. He is a published author and columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He wrote this column for The News & Advance.