You might think the Minnesota Department of Agriculture would regroup and reassess after being handed its head by a Minneapolis jury that acquitted Alvin Schlangen of misdemeanor charges just two months ago.
But no, the agency is pushing full speed ahead in a separate administrative case it filed months ago–one of three cases, together with the Minneapolis case and another misdemeanor case in Schlangen’s home of Stearns County that were filed against the farmer in connection with his food club’s distribution of food to more than 100 members.
The MDA clearly is more confident taking its case to a judge, rather than a jury, which isn’t required in an administrative case such as this. The administrative case is potentially less onerous for Schlangen– the judge in this case can order Schlangen to obtain a food license and discontinue distributing raw milk, but can’t penalize him for ignoring his orders; that would require the MDA to appeal for criminal penalties, and could put the case before a jury…again. No, this is more about harassment, requiring an expenditure of time and energy by Schlangen and his lawyer from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
Latest in the MDA’s bag of tricks in this administrative case is a motion for summary disposition–a ruling by the judge that MDA is right, before a trial even occurs. To support its motion, the MDA presented the judge late last month with an affidavit from an MDA inspector that she was able to sign up as a member of Schlangen’s food club and place an order–all via a publicly available web site. MDA Compliance Supervisor Jennifer Erickson stated she “created an alias, Jennifer Smith. As ‘Jennifer Smith’ MDA was able to place an order…for unpasteurized butter and unpasteurized milk. At no time was ‘Jennifer Smith’ required to become a member of ‘Freedom Farms Coop’ to complete the order.”
That affidavit lead to an angry exchange of letters by the lawyers in the case.
Totally misleading, responded Schlangen’s lawyer, Nathan Hansen. He said that “MDA employee Erickson leads you to believe that she ordered and received slow churned raw butter from Mr. Schlangen. However, Erickson never paid for and never received any product from Freedom Farms Coop. Although Erickson made an attempt to place a website order for butter from the Coop, she is not a member of the Coop and the Coop never delivered that butter to her. In addition, Erickson never sent in any check as she claims. MDA employee Erickson knows this for a fact yet she never brings it to your attention. Instead, she lies by omission.”
In a followup letter, the state’s lawyer, Kimerly Middendorf of the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, complained about “the many unfounded, personal attacks made by Mr. Schlangen and his attorneys…” but didn’t deny that the undercover agent, Jennifer Erickson, failed to actually pay for or take delivery of the butter or milk in question. She also presented procedural arguments for the MDA’s case against Schlangen.
Middendorf, previously argued to the judge the same thing argued by MDA to a jury in the case MDA lost, that Schlangen’s “coop is not a cooperative under the laws of Minnesota, and as such is nothing more than an assumed name under which Mr. Schlangen conducts his grocery delivery business. Accordingly it is Mr. Schlangen, and not ‘Freedom Farm Coop’ that must be licensed to lawfully conduct this business. Mr. Schlangen contends that to regulate his ‘coop’ is to regulate his personal pantry. To the contrary, he leases a warehouse, bottles dairy products, and advertises for sale more than 100 products from around the country to the general public.”
As I said, the Minneapolis jury already rejected this line of reasoning, essentially agreeing that Schlangen’s food club is a private organization, outside the regulatory structure. Will the judge in this case do the same? Don’t count on it. Judges have nearly universally backed the regulators, no matter which state. No, it may be that this case will eventually need to be steered back to a jury, where the people can decide once again.
Rawesome Food Club founder James Stewart walked out of a Los Angeles County jail this afternoon, freed after four months behind bars.He had been arrested in July after he failed to appear for court sessions in both Ventura County and Los Angeles County, and held nearly the entire time in Ventura County north of Los Angeles.
According to friends of Stewart, he was transferred a few days ago from Ventura County jail to Los Angeles County jail Twin Towers. It is understood that many of the charges against him in Ventura County in connection with loans obtained by farmer Sharon Palmer to acquire her farm in 2008 were dropped or significantly reduced.
Stewart, 65, apparently pleaded guilty to one or two misdemeanors in connection with charges for illegal sale of raw milk at Rawesome Food Club brought in 2011. However, he still faces charges in connection with taxes owed from Rawesome Food Club. A Los Angeles County judge released him on his own recognizance, with an anklet bracelet to monitor his whereabouts.