IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Three Overton, Neb., farmers have been federally sentenced to prison for their roles in a organic fraud case with a Missouri farmer.
Michael Potter, 41, was sentenced to two years in prison; James Brennan, 41, was sentenced to 20 months; and his father, Tom Brennan, 71, was given a three-month sentence for growing non-organic crops sold as organic.
The Missouri farmer behind the scheme, Randy Constant of Chillicothe, Mo., ran what prosecutors called the largest food fraud scheme in U.S. history. Constant died by suicide Monday.
A federal judge in Iowa sentenced Constant to a 10-year prison term at a hearing on Friday for leading what prosecutors dubbed the “field of schemes fraud.” Prosecutors say Constant falsely marketed non-organic corn and soybeans certified as organic on a massive scale.
The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, reported that at their plea hearings, each Overton farmer admitted to growing grain between 2010 and 2017 that was not organic. They received more than $10 million from Constant.
Also, at their sentencings, Williams ordered each to forfeit $1 million in proceeds from their crimes. As part of his plea, Constant had agreed to forfeit $128,190,128 in proceeds from the scheme.
Williams also gave all four men the option of entering federal custody immediately, surrendering in two weeks to a regional U.S. Marshals office, or self-reporting to the prison designated by the bureau of prisons.
All four chose the final option, which typically might give them three to six more weeks of freedom before incarceration. Williams warned they would have to pay their own way and show up on time or face potential legal consequences.
Prosecutors routinely do not seek immediate detention in federal custody for defendants who are not seen as dangerous or flight risks.
Constant’s grain sales equaled up to 7 percent of organic corn grown in the U.S. in 2016 and 8 percent of the organic soybeans. Overall, from 2010 to 2017, he sold more than 11.5 million bushels of grain, or enough to fill approximately 3,600 rail cars, prosecutors said.
“Randy Constant and his co-conspirators lied to the American public and cheated thousands of consumers,” U.S. Attorney Peter E. Deegan, Jr. said in a statement issued Monday. “For years, Constant put personal greed and self-interest above all else.”
Constant owned an Iowa-based grain brokerage, which sold his corn and soybeans primarily as feed for chickens and cattle. Those animals were then marketed for their meat and meat products that were advertised as organic.
Judge Williams said during the sentencing hearing that Constant’s fraud did “extreme and incalculable damage” to consumers and shook public confidence in the nation’s organic food industry.
Williams said consumers nationwide were fooled into paying extra to buy products ranging from eggs to steak that they believed were better for the environment and their own health. Instead, they unwittingly purchased food that relied on farming practices they opposed, including the use of chemical pesticides to grow crops.
Constant’s attorney Mark Weinhardt described his client last week as a 60-year-old “pillar of the community” who had served on the school board and donated his time and money to local causes and the Methodist church. He said he was stunned by the contradiction between Constant’s record of good deeds and his lengthy fraud scheme.
Constant would be broke and unable to farm for the rest of his life, Weinhardt said, adding that he had sold his home and his wife of 39 years had come out of retirement to return to teaching to support the family.
Federal prosecutors had introduced evidence that Constant was repeatedly traveling to Las Vegas during the scheme, where he gambled and spent heavily to support three women with whom he had sexual relationships.