Prison sentences handed down in Peanut Corp. of America case

by Keith Nunes
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Two former executives with the Peanut Corporation of America and a broker who worked with the company received prison sentences.

ALBANY, GA. — Two former executives with the Peanut Corporation of America and a broker who worked with the company received prison sentences for their roles in the contamination of peanut products with salmonella that led to the deaths of nine and sickened more than 700.

Stewart Parnell, the former owner and president of the Lynchburg, Va.-based company, was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Mr. Parnell is 61.

Michael Parnell, 56, the brother of Stewart Parnell who was employed as a broker for P.P. Sales and worked on behalf of P.C.A., was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, who was the quality assurance manager at the P.C.A. plant in Blakely, Ga., was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

The Parnell brothers were convicted by a federal jury on Sept. 19, 2014, of multiple counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and the sale of misbranded food. Stewart Parnell also was convicted of the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson also were convicted of obstruction of justice.

Stewart Parnell was found guilty of all but one of the 68 felony counts with which he was charged on Feb. 15, 2013.

“Americans should be able to trust that the food we buy for ourselves and our families is safe,” said Stuart F. Delery, acting associate attorney general. “The sentences handed down today to officials associated with the Peanut Corporation of America demonstrate the consequences for those whose criminal actions threaten that trust by introducing contaminated food into the marketplace. Our prosecution is just one more example of the forceful actions that the Department of Justice, with its agency partners, takes against any individual or company who compromises the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain.”

Stewart Parnell, the former owner and president of the Peanut Corp. of America

The government presented evidence at trial to establish that Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell, along with former P.C.A. operations manager Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, participated in several schemes by which they defrauded P.C.A. customers and jeopardized the quality and purity of the peanut products the company produced. Specifically, evidence showed the defendants misled customers about the presence of salmonella in their products. 

For example, the Parnells, Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Kilgore fabricated certificates of analysis (C.O.A.s) accompanying shipments of peanut products. According to the evidence, on several occasions, the Parnells, Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Kilgore participated in a scheme to fabricate C.O.A.s that stated that the food at issue was free of pathogens when in fact there had been no testing of the food or tests had revealed the presence of pathogens.

Attorneys representing the U.S. Department of Justice also presented evidence that when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) officials visited P.C.A.’s Blakely plant to investigate the outbreak, Stewart Parnell, Mr. Lightsey and Ms. Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading answers to questions posed by the investigating officials.

“Today’s sentencing sends a powerful message to officials in the food industry that they stand in a special position of trust with the American consumer, and those who put profit above the welfare of their customers and knowingly sell contaminated food will face serious consequences,” said Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work aggressively with its partners to ensure that the American people are protected from food that is adulterated or misbranded within the meaning of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and pursue any person who fails to abide by the vital food safety protections in the law. We are dedicated to using all the tools that we have at our disposal to ensure that the processors and handlers of our food have the public’s safety forefront in their minds.”

Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Kilgore are schedule to be sentenced on Oct. 1.

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