Easton is a pretty little town in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, on the border with New Jersey, with trendy restaurants and coffee houses.
But yesterday, it was the host to a not-so-pretty court hearing at the U.S. District Court on the matter of a contempt-of-court motion by the U.S. Justice Department against Pennsylvania farmer Amos Miller, in connection with disputed food club purchase records It was a hearing at which the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor, Paul Sullivan, pretty much got his way on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its demand for three months of food purchase records from Miller, which he had previously declined to provide.
The tenor of the hearing was set from its earliest moments Tuesday afternoon, when Miller’s lawyer, Joseph Macaluso, was introduced to the court, after months when Miller had represented himself before the court. Judge Edward Smith immediately expressed concern about whether Miller had had “an adequate opportunity” to update the lawyer about the case. Judge Smith was clearly prepared to extend Miller a delay of at least several weeks to enable him to forge a well-considered approach to dealing with the USDA demand for Miller’s records in the contempt-of-court motion.
No, no problem, Miller’s lawyer indicated. They didn’t need a delay, and were ready to go forward yesterday afternoon. It was downhill from there as the government grab bag was clearly open and accepting all the gifts Miller was prepared to throw in.
By the end of the afternoon, Miller indicated he was prepared to hand over a thick black notebook sitting on the defense table, filled with purchase records he had brought along. When Judge Smith inquired about the reams of private member invoices, Miller responded, “My secretary said there is three months of records in this file. I am not sure which months are on there. I would like to just hand it over to them and have it done.”
Judge Smith cleared his throat and then stated, “After it is redacted.” He was referring to a redaction commitment from USDA covering member names and street addresses, including city, but not affecting, state, and non-meat purchase information.
These are records that seem destined to be used to incriminate Miller and possibly subject him to many thousands of dollars of fines from the USDA. (However, the records can be redacted for non-meat information, meaning they can’t be easily used by other agencies, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for potential prosecution and further penalties.)
While Miller ostensibly was represented by Macaluso, the lawyer seemed very quiet, both before and after a series of two private 20-minute “negotiation” sessions between the government’s lawyers and Miller’s team over exactly what would be turned over to the USDA. Miller’s team clearly wasn’t directed by his lawyer, but rather by two representatives from a quasi-legal organization, ProAdvocate, which organizes private member associations and helps defendants represent themselves (pro-se) in legal cases.
At one point, Miller and his team briefed about a dozen friends and food club members in attendance about the status of the negotiations. When one member questioned the ProAdvocate representatives about whether an agreement might include a government commitment to simply seek compliance with USDA rules, without penalties from alleged previous violations, one of the ProAdvocate reps said that was “a good point, because we did not cover that.”
Another food club member inquired whether the agreement might redact other information besides member names and street addresses, such as non-meat products that had been ordered. That also seemed do-able, the ProAdvocate rep indicated.
But when Judge Smith finally returned to the courtroom following the private negotiation sessions, and summarized the agreed-to arrangement, there was no mention of either point about penalties or redacting non-meat items being part of the agreement.
Instead, Miller is required to turn over between 2,000 and 3,000 records covering a three-month period during 2016, at a rate of 500 records per week, beginning next week, and continuing for up to six weeks. Should Miller fail to meet any of his weekly deadlines, Judge Smith ruled, he could be subject to a penalty of $500 for each day he fails to comply.
Judge Smith noted that the records handover only resolved the matter of the contempt hearing, and no other legal problems facing Miller. In fact, the judge at one point asked Miller if the word “organic” was part of the farm’s name. Miller’s lawyer replied, “Yes, sir.”
The judge was clearly making reference to the USDA case in North Carolina by the agency’s organic group, over Miller’s use of the term “organic” in the farm’s name. As described in my previous post, the USDA has sought member purchase records in that case as well. Miller’s legal team clearly hadn’t thought about bundling the “organic” investigation into a settlement of the contempt of court case.
Judge Smith twice took the unusual step of bypassing Miller’s lawyer and ProAdvocate reps to ask Miller directly whether he had any questions or comments about the proceedings. Miller had none, but the message in the judge’s questions directly to the defendant was clear: He was completely unimpressed with Miller’s legal team.
And the government rout was complete.