CEO emails tell the tale in peanut poisoning trial

Prosecutors seeking rare felony convictions in Georgia case

With a shipping deadline fast approaching, an employee at the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely wanted to know what should be done with an order that hadn't been tested for salmonella. The email response from the company's president was succinct.

“(Expletive), just ship it,” Stewart Parnell wrote. “I can’t afford to lose another customer.”

A month later, the same employee had a similar query. This time, Parnell was even more direct.

“SHIP,” he wrote

Parnell’s words, written seven years ago, will take on new life in an Albany courtroom in the coming weeks as federal prosecutors try to use them and other email messages to send the former peanut executive to prison.

In a trial that started with jury selection Monday and is expected to last two months, the government will argue that Parnell willfully directed his company to sell products that killed nine peopleand sickened more than 700.

Food-borne poisonings rarely lead to criminal prosecutions, and the case against Parnell, 60, is being watched closely by food safety advocates who believe his conviction could have a profound effect on the industry.

“Seldom does a plant owner or manager knowingly sell a contaminated product,” said Michael Doyle, who directs the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. “And so I think (Peanut Corp.) is being used as a poster child, you might say, letting producers and processors know they can’t do that sort of thing and expect to get away with it, not only in this country but internationally.”

Thomas Bondurant, a Roanoke, Va., attorney representing Parnell, declined to discuss what defense he would mount in a case in which dozens of emails written by his client are expected to play a role.

“We have some ideas but not anything we want to disclose ahead of time,” he said.

The criminal case comes five years after the headline-grabbing scandal that revealed how Peanut Corp. plants in Blakely and in Plainview, Texas, had long been operated in unsanitary conditions that included leaky roofs and rodent and insect infestations.

Parnell famously refused to answer questions in front of a congressional subcommittee, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even when one committee member held up a jar of products made from the company's peanuts wrapped in yellow crime tape and asked the disgraced executive if he would eat them.

As the publicity grew, Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations.

“Peanut butter is a high-risk product, consumed by elderly people and kids,” Doyle said. “When salmonella gets in a product like that, many people can become seriously ill.”

Fraud and conspiracy

Prosecutors allege that Parnell and others allowed peanuts to be shipped before they had been tested for salmonella or even after tests showed the presence of the bacteria. The company’s customers, which included Kellogg’s and dozens of other food manufacturers, were left in the dark, the government asserts.

The charges against Parnell, detailed in a 76-count indictment, include conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and introducing adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead.

Parnell ran the company from his home in Lynchburg, Va., but the case is in the Middle District of Georgia because most of the tainted products originated from Blakely.

Also due to stand trial are Parnell’s brother Michael, who prosecutors say worked on behalf of Peanut Corp. as a food broker, and Mary Wilkerson, the quality assurance manager at the Blakely plant. Michael Parnell has been charged as part of the conspiracy, while Wilkerson faces two counts of obstruction.

Former Blakely plant manager Samuel Lightsey has pleaded guilty to six counts, including conspiracy and wire fraud, and has agreed to testify for the government. In return, prosecutors are recommending that he receive a prison term of no less than six years.

Jeff Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died from salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter that originated with Peanut Corp., said he has been in frequent contact with federal investigators.

“I got the impression that this was so far-reaching that they wanted to dot every `I’ and cross every `T,’” he said.

That Parnell and others from the company are finally going to trial is “extremely gratifying,” Almer said.

“In my mind, they are murderers,” he said. “But anything that puts these people in jail is fine with me.”

Proving intent

Criminal prosecutions in food poisoning cases are rare because proving intent, the key to a felony conviction, is difficult, food safety experts say.

The two Colorado farmers responsible for listeria-tainted cantaloupe that caused 33 deaths in 2011 were prosecuted, but the government ultimately accepted guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were sentenced to probation.

Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who represented victims and families affected by the Peanut Corp. products, said he believes the case against Stewart Parnell and his colleagues can be different.

“What makes this case powerful is the company, if you believe the emails and the testing results, made a decision to ship products into interstate commerce knowing that it tested positive for salmonella,” he said. “They would get a positive sample and a negative sample, choose to believe the negative sample and ship it.”

Emails in government court filings _ many of them undisclosed previously _ depict Parnell and others as willing to gamble with public health to keep sales moving.

“Thanks, Mary,” Parnell wrote Wilkerson after she informed him that a lot had been placed on hold after a presumptive positive test for salmonella and that another sample would be tested. “I go through this about once a week … I will hold my breath … again.”

In another, Parnell told employees to "clean 'em up and ship them" after it was reported to him that bags of peanut meal slotted for an order were covered with "rat crap" and dust.

And on yet another occasion, he told an employee worried about questions from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over why a customer rejected a shipment to state that the issue was the size of the peanuts and not that the shipment contained metal fragments.

“I don’t want to mention metal in a food product,” Parnell wrote.

A claim of ADHD

According to defense filings, Parnell suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and the condition, commonly known as ADHD, affected his ability to read and understand the emails.

A Virginia neuropsychologist who examined Parnell in August 2013 concluded that the executive, a salesman for most of his career, was thrust into the role of managing three peanut processing plants without “the experience and executive neurocognitive capacity” to do so.

“Mr. Parnell was and remains cognitively incapable of fielding, delineating, organizing and integrating the daily plethora of phone calls and emails required in managing three companies,” the psychologist, Joseph C. Conley, wrote.

Parnell’s attorneys had hoped to have Conley provide expert testimony during the trial to establish “that it is highly unlikely that (Parnell) would have read, much less appreciated, the potential import of the communications.”

However, U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands ruled that Conley’s testimony is inadmissible because Parnell’s attorneys failed to show a link between ADHD and their client’s acts.

“The allegations in this case involve a complex scheme to defraud and allegations of willfulness _ not errors and mistakes in processing (emails and phone calls),” Sands wrote.

Ann Parnell, the wife of Stewart Parnell’s brother Hugh, said the government’s portrayal of her brother-in-law is one she doesn’t recognize. She noted that Stewart Parnell, an experienced pilot, would fly cancer patients living in remote locations to treatment facilities and devote his time to other charitable endeavors.

“I grew up with this family and none of them are capable of intentionally doing anything to harm another person in any way,” she said. “It’s just not in them.”

But Almer has a different take, and the 51-year-old resident of Savage, Minn., has arranged to be away from his job at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters for several weeks so he can attend portions of the trial.

“I’ve been with Best Buy for almost 30 years, and I’ve been saving up my vacation time for a rainy day,” he said. “Well, this is my rainy day.”