IMG_1614.JPGEven the most despotic regimes hate to impose martial law and put soldiers into the streets to back up the police in putting down citizen uprisings. Despots worry that, when push comes to shove, and protesting citizens don’t do as they’re told, soldiers may hesitate before firing on their fellow citizens—possibly including friends and relatives–for something as terrible as carrying signs of protest or failing to obey orders to disperse. If that happens, the despots are really in the soup.

Listening to the lawyer-less Mennonite farmer, Mark Nolt, cross-examine Anthony Russo, a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture microbiologist-turned-undercover-agent, got me thinking about such encounters between citizen soldiers and their subjects. Russo, a lanky bearded fellow who has been with the agency 21 years, had just testified about two occasions when top PDA food safety official Bill Chirdon asked…no, demanded, that Russo accompany him on an “undercover” assignment. The undercover assignment involved going to a farmer’s market near the state capital of Harrisburg and purchasing raw dairy products from Mark Nolt so he could be put on trial.

Russo’s first assignment came July 6, 2007, at a farmer’s market in Carlisle, and went off without a hitch, as Russo purchased a half gallon of milk and a quart of kefir, as Chirdon waited outside the market in a car. Presumably Mark would recognize Chirdon, and possibly endanger the well planned and highly coordinated operation.

“I asked (Mark) about the kefir, and he said there were 13 positive bacteria in it,” recalled Russo. The employee took the items back to the lab and confirmed they were, indeed, raw dairy.

A week later, Chirdon made the same request of Russo. This time, Russo hesitated. “Once again, it was a busy day at work,” recalled Rousseau. “He (Chirdon) asked me to go. He’s my boss, so I said I would go.” Rousseau purchased half a gallon of milk and some buttermilk, and brought them to his boss waiting outside the market.

When the judge asked Mark if he had questions for Russo, Mark inquired about who drove the car and where they parked on each occasion.

Russo answered, obviously uncomfortable about having to confront the victim of his subterfuge, because he then volunteered: “I was nervous about going. I don’t like doing that kind of stuff. I was hoping you weren’t there because I didn’t want to get any samples.”

After the trial, and the guilty verdict by Judge Day, several of the Mennonite women in the audience—easily identifiable by their bonnets and traditional dresses—approached Russo and thanked him for his honesty. He seemed touched, as well he should have been. He’s just a regular guy trying to do his job, avoid trouble, and eventually get a nice pension.

Interestingly, the guy who put Russo up to all this, Bill Chirdon, wasn’t present at the trial. It’s apparently the first time he hasn’t shown up at a court proceeding or a raid that Mark can recall. Maybe Chirdon didn’t want to be called as a witness and have to be cross-examined by Mark. Or maybe he didn’t want to face questions about the questionable seizure of equipment during the most recent raid he led on Mark’s farm. Or maybe he didn’t want to face the battery of television and other reporters who waited outside when the trial ended (see photo above).

Later, back at the Nolt farm in Newville, where the inventory in the store’s cooler is a bit thin, Mary Ann Nolt, still in her black bonnet and purple dress, expressed wonder at what she had seen at the trial. “I was sitting in the court room and there were all these important people there. They have these degrees. They were taking time from their busy day for this. We’re just a tiny speck. Why are we so important? Why are we a threat to them?…I wonder when they go home tonight. Will they feel they did an honest day’s work? Will they feel good about what they did?”

Tony Russo may well have gone home with the same feeling lots of people in that courtroom had. None of us worked very hard, but we all sure needed a shower.