Uncle Sam doesn’t like to lose in court, especially when the winner is a legally clumsy Amish farmer selling healing food via private food clubs around the country. That much became clear during a phone hearing before federal judge Edward Smith Friday, following up on his surprise decision in late August to suspend payment of a $250,000 fine due the next day from long embattled Amish farmer Amos Miller.
Government lawyers and investigators who testified before Judge Smith could barely hide their irritation with the judge’s late-August decision, and their desire for revenge, as they described an expanded investigation of Miller that is grasping for any and all evidence that Miller is somehow angling to ‘defraud’ the government by failing to fully comply with a court order prohibiting Miller from slaughtering animals on his Pennsylvania farm; the order requires Miller have his animals slaughtered at USDA-inspected facilities. “In our view, Miller continues to take a number of deceptive actions to avoid the court’s orders,” assistant U.S. attorney Gerald Sullivan told Judge Smith.
In anticipation of the Friday hearing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent five investigators a couple weeks ago to rummage through Miller’s facilities and inspect its meat inventory, Miller told me prior to the hearing. In past inspections, the USDA has sent two investigators at a time. “They’ve become increasingly aggressive,” he said.
One of the things that has clearly irked the USDA and its lawyers is the broad show of financial support Miller received from his food club members and other supporters after Judge Smith in July went along with a government recommendation and imposed a $250,000 fine on Miller, plus more than $13,000 in expenses. Sullivan argued that Miller should be forced to pay the $250,000 fine into some kind of holding account until the judge issues a final decision about whether the fine is to be imposed, suggesting that such a huge fine was somehow small potatoes to Miller. In a voice tinged with sarcasm and resentment, Sullivan stated: “Obviously the fine means nothing because he is able to raise money so easily.” He was referring to the $133,000 Miller raised in two GoFundMe campaigns; Sullivan chose to ignore the reality that the money Miller raised came from more than 1,300 supporters. Perhaps Sullivan was assuming Miller was like the corporate food producers he is accustomed to dealing with for which fines or penalties really do “mean nothing.”
Much of the rest of the hearing was filled with the kinds of guilt-by-association conclusions that have come to characterize the government’s case against Miller. In previous hearings and filings, the USDA has made a big deal about Miller buying land or making arrangements for a daughter’s wedding to argue that the Amish farmer isn’t a poor small farmer as some people might have inferred. In reality, Miller’s members don’t begrudge paying for his natural food or that he might actually make a profit on his sales.
In the hearing today, an investigator provided evidence that Miller over the last month has had animals slaughtered at a facility in Maryland, rather than Pennsylvania. He also said Miller continues to acquire significant numbers of pigs, cows, turkeys, and other animals. And he said Miller acquired some neighboring land that he then leased to an Amish man who also has worked for Miller.
In a brief cross-examination, Miller’s lawyer, Steve LeFuente, questioned the agent about whether any of those activities were at odds with federal law or orders instituted against Miller. At one point the agent stated: “We are presenting evidence of a large number of animals purchased….”
“But none of that activity violates the order, correct?” Fuentes challenged.
“Yes, that is correct,” the agent admitted.
The cross examination was cut short by difficulties with the phone connection; Judge Smith requested that the government complete its investigation and file a written motion for what it wants done. But he expressed concern there could be “continuing violation of the order….that will endanger the health of the citizens who are receiving this product.” That said, Judge Smith has been tough to predict over the five years the government has pushed its case. He has always been left with the reality that there’s never been an allegation of illness from Miller’s meat, or even a complaint from a food club member about it.