Almost like a mirage, the Rawesome Food Club case seems to be disappearing before our eyes.
A big chunk of it vaporized Friday when two defendants–Sharon Palmer and Victoria Bloch–settled the charges filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney 13 months ago with slaps on the wrist…no, I’d say they were little taps. They each pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor, and agreed to pay a small fine.
Palmer, the Ventura County farmer, pleaded guilty to one count of distributing milk in unsanitary conditions, was fined $400, and will have to do 40 hours of community service. She will be on probation for three years.
Bloch, the graphic designer who worked for Palmer at farmers markets on weekends, pleaded guilty to one count of mislabeling a container of goat milk. She’ll pay a $100 fine and won’t have any community service requirement. She’ll be on probation for one year.
The case of James Stewart, Rawesome’s manager, remains in abeyance. He has a hearing scheduled next Wednesday in Ventura County on his motion to dismiss charges against him there for alleged with fraud and securities law violations in connection with Palmer’s acquisition of Healthy Family Farms back in 2008. Palmer still faces charges there as well in connection with loans and a mortgage obtained to obtain the farm.
But if the events today are any indication, Stewart’s Los Angeles County case can be expected to vaporize, and the Ventura County case looks to be on unsteady legs.
The L.A. County District Attorney clearly didn’t want to have to present evidence in the Rawesome case. The prosecutors there had previously offered Palmer a deal whereby she would plead guilty to a single felony count, with five years felony probation.
She refused the deal, and her lawyer proceeded to subpoena Richard Estes, the chief counsel for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to challenge the legality of herdshares. As I discussed in my previous post, many of the charges against Palmer and Stewart in L.A. County grew out of a herdshare Palmer operated for Rawesome, whereby she provided raw goat milk.
Apparently when Palmer arrived at court Friday morning for a pretrial hearing, at which the state was supposed to present its key evidence in the case, the deal for Palmer had improved–the felony charge would become a misdemeanor and there would be no restrictions on her selling at L.A. County farmers markets. The move to subpoena Estes of the CDFA had apparently helped convince Estes he didn’t want to testify and prosecutors that they didn’t want to do a legal defense of prosecuting herdshares in California, when the state has no law covering herdshares.
Both Bloch and Palmer had indicated a willingness to fight the charges associated with Rawesome, but apparently were swayed by the offer of a very small penalty, and the prospect of avoiding a protracted wait for a trial. Bloch said that apparently, under the labeling laws, “ignorance of the law isn’t necessarily an excuse. I am guilty of having made one sale to an undercover officer because I gave him goat milk without a label.”
According to Palmer, the misdemeanor count she pleaded guilty to is misleading with its mention of “unsanitary condition.” “When I was raided, the milk was for my ‘milk fed pig’. The unsanitary conditions relate to the non-food containers the milk was kept in to feed the pigs. Even my pig food did not have pathogens in it and tested clean.”
The two women, together with Stewart, were charged in early August 2011, when they were arrested and tossed in jail–Stewart and Bloch for two days and Palmer for a week–until bail could be arranged.
Subsequently, Palmer and Stewart were arrested by Ventura County sheriffs in connection with the fraud allegations while at a hearing in L.A. County. They were held–Palmer on $2 million bail and Stewart on $1 million bail–for days until a judge finally reduced bail enough that the two could raise the money. In late July, Stewart was jailed in Ventura County for violating terms of his bail by not showing up for a court hearing; he remains there.
The prosecutors may have failed to get very tough penalties on Palmer and Bloch, but they no doubt accomplished their key goals: to shut down Rawesome Food Club and get at least a couple of small notches on their belts by obtaining guilty pleas to a couple of misdemeanors. Certainly those were the primary goals all along–pile on the charges and then let the defendants off, relieved they only had small penalties, and send a message that private food clubs that provide members with full choice, including raw milk, won’t be tolerated.