Did Vernon Hershberger dodge a bullet, or did the two prosecutors from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office shoot themselves in the foot on Friday, when a judge refused to act on a state request that Hershberger be penalized for allegedly violating the terms of his bail agreement?
It’s hard to know because, while Judge Guy Reynolds admonished the two prosecutors for failing to follow proper protocol in seeking sanctions against raw dairy farmer Hershberger, the judge left open the possibility that Hershberger could be subject to severe penalties if he is eventually judged to have violated the bail terms.
The prosecutors during the previous week had dashed off a letter to the judge, complaining that Hershberger was violating the bail terms by making raw milk and other farm products available to his food club members, alleging he was running a retail store.
Eric Defort, one of the assistant Attorney General prosecutors (with Phillip Ferris), accused Hershberger of “willful violation of the pretrial release conditions.” Judge Reynolds acknowledged he had received a letter from the Attorney General’s office about Hershberger. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, he noted tersely, “This court will not respond to letters. This court responds to motions.”
The judge did, however, warn Hershberger that he could be in trouble with the court if the
Attorney General’s office files a motion and the judge agrees with it. Violating bond conditions “could be a separate crime subject to separate punishment. I admonish you that you are to follow my bond conditions.”
Hershberger, sitting alone at the defendant’s table, reminded the judge that he had previously disavowed the agreement he signed in early January as a condition of being released pending trial for four misdemeanors related to making raw milk available to his nearly 200 herd club members. Many of them were among the 70 people who packed the main courtroom, and were also among another 100 or so crowded into a basement room where the proceedings could be viewed on a television monitor. “I do not have jurisdiction over that food,” Hershberger told the judge. “It belongs to the members.”
The judge didn’t respond to Hershberger’s reminder, just as he hadn’t responded when Hershberger read his widely disseminated statement that he “would rather go to jail, or even die” than withhold food from his food club members, as required by the bail agreement.
Ferris, the assistant AG, declined after the hearing to say whether he had plans to file a motion on the bail matter. “It’s not that I won’t talk with you, I wouldn’t tell any member of the media my plans,” he said.
Before the bail agreement issue came up, the judge set a date for the previously postponed pretrial hearing of Sept. 14. Then he set a tentative date for Hershberger’s trial of Sept. 25, and said he anticipated it would run three or four days.
The judge repeatedly advised Hershberger to reconsider his strategy up till now of representing himself in court. “If you cannot afford (a lawyer), one will be appointed” from the public defender’s office, the judge told Hershberger. “I urge you to get an attorney.” Hershberger told the judge he was uncertain whether he would engage a lawyer.
The judge also promised to review three motions Hershberger has filed challenging the court’s jurisdiction in the case, which argue that because the food club is privately organized, it is outside the regulatory reach of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Judge Reynolds gave the state 21 days to respond to Hershberger’s motions, and said Hershberger would then have 10 days to respond to the state’s response.
Prior to the half-hour hearing, about 300 Hershberger supporters gathered in the snowy cold outside the courthouse for a one-hour demonstration that included brief remarks by Hershberger, Canadian food rights leader Michael Schmidt, Liz Reitzig of the Raw Milk Freedom Riders, and Aajonus Vonderplanitz of Right to Choose Healthy Food, which leases the cows on behalf of the Hershberger food club.
Schmidt asked the crowd: “Who is willing to go to jail in defense of their food rights?” About two-thirds of those rallying raised their hands and cheered.
Two members of Hershberger’s food club also spoke. One of them, Jenny, pointed out, “I am not engaging in commerce. I am the owner of the animals.” Eating the food from her animals is “our fundamental right.”
The rally’s highlight was the unveiling of a huge “Declaration of Food Independence”, which committed its signers to engaging in civil disobedience to confirm the right of individuals to enter into private agreements for food.
At nearly the same time as the Vernon Hershberger hearing was taking place, a separate courtroom drama was playing out in a Los Angeles County courthouse . There, a seemingly routine hearing for the Rawesome Three—James Stewart, Sharon Palmer, and Victoria Bloch—was just ending.
Before the defendants could turn to leave the courtroom, three L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies standing a few feet away ordered Stewart and Palmer to place their hands behind their backs so they could be handcuffed, and they were then whisked out of the courthouse. They were arrested under a warrant issued by neighboring Ventura County, which is where Palmer’s Healthy Family Farms is located. Left alone in the L.A. courtroom was Bloch, who told me that not only was she in shock, but that the L.A. Country District Attorney’s representative appeared just as surprised.
Rumors have been floating around all week that additional charges were pending against one or more of the Rawesome Three. I spoke with an official in the L.A. County District Attorney’s office who, while he wouldn’t comment specifically, suggested his office didn’t have new charges pending for the Friday hearing.
According to an article in a Ventura County publication, Palmer is being charged with 38 felony counts and Stewart with 37 felony counts. The felonies, alleged to have taken place between Feb. 1, 2008, and April 1, 2009, include grand theft, money laundering, and the illegal offering of securities, along with two counts of elder theft.
Also charged was Larry Otting, a long-time Rawesome member, with 14 felony counts.
Because Otting was involved in helping Palmer obtain financing for Healthy Family Farms, it seems as if the new charges revolve around the financing that took place during 2008. Palmer is understood to have taken short-term loans from several Rawesome members and other individuals to complete the purchase of Healthy Family Farms in late 2008. She then encountered difficulties re-paying the money when she was hit, beginning in late 2008, with charges by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, together with Ventura County, that she was selling goats milk cheese without proper licensing. Palmer has argued that she had paid CDFA for renewal of licenses, and that CDFA had cashed her checks, but failed to issue her the licenses. The situation was complicated by the fact that Palmer had moved from a previous Ventura County farm, where the licenses were originally issued, to Healthy Family Farms during 2008.
Stewart, through Rawesome, had helped Palmer make connections with Rawesome members to borrow funds for the farm.
So now Palmer is being held pending $2 million bail, and Stewart on $1 million bail. Otting’s bail situation isn’t known at this time.
Palmer’s higher bail likely reflects the fact that in 2001, she pleaded guilty to defrauding an elderly woman in a mortgage scheme run by her husband at the time, and was released based on having served nine months when she couldn’t post bail and her husband at the time was on the run. She has claimed that he was the driving force in the operation, and that she served mostly as an administrative aide.
Friends of Stewart say they appealed to the Red Cross Friday for assistance, claiming he is being held as “a political prisoner.” They say he won’t accept any supplies or eat any of the food in jail, based on his need for a special diet relying heavily on raw dairy and meat.
In addition, they are asking Stewart supporters to petition the L.A. police and sheriff’s department with notarized letters they have drafted. These also claim he is a political prisoner.
Before Stewart and Palmer were hauled out of the L.A. courtroom in handcuffs, the judge in the original case filed last August, in which they were charged with selling raw milk without a license, had set May 2 for a pretrial hearing.