(Sept. 5) Citing a wide range of alleged violations of constitutional rights and state laws and misappropriation of funds, Gonzales Packing Co., Gonzales, Calif., filed suit in mid-August in Fresno County Superior Court against the California Tomato Commission, its chief executive officer Ed Beckman and California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.

The suit asks the court to, among other requests, order the commission’s termination, the reimbursement of the alleged misappropriated funds and the firing of Beckman.

Melanie Horwath, office manager for Gonzales, said the company is particularly upset about the commission’s financial support of the California Fresh Tomato Growers Exchange, which she said is a group of shippers who have colluded to set prices.

“Some growers end up getting all the perks,” Horwath said.

Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing for Oceanside Produce Inc., Oceanside, Calif., is a member of the commission’s board of directors. He said all the funds spent in support of the exchange are from exchange members only. The exchange is a co-op, and about 85% of commission members belong to the exchange, he said.

Wilber said the exchange provides information such as projected volume, which he said permits members to discuss a bigger picture with customers, not just one company’s production forecast.

’UNFOUNDED’ CHARGES

The suit brought a sharp rebuke from Kathleen Meehan, attorney for the tomato commission.

“There are so many claims in this suit that are unfounded and are demonstrably wrong,” Meehan said. The suit did not come as a complete surprise.

Last year, James Leighton, attorney representing Gonzales Packing, demanded under the California Public Records Act copies of commission documents. The commission honored the requests even though Leighton refused to reveal whether he represented a client, Meehan said.

Leighton has filed other suits challenging marketing orders and commodities boards. He is active in a suit filed June 1 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on behalf of a group of Fresno County growers challenging the authority of the Raisin Administrative Committee.

Meehan said the commission in response to Leighton’s most recent request provided copies of 4,000 documents. She said the total number of documents surrendered to Leighton over the past year was about 10,000.

LAST SPRING

Wilber and Meehan said the friction with Gonzales Packing Co. began in May 2005 when the commission supported a bill in Sacramento that would have given inspectors for the California Department of Food and Agriculture authority to demand to see bills of lading for so-called gunny bag tomatoes.

Wilber said the proposed legislation would have provided added safeguards for consumers because a potential health problem could have been traced back to the source.

Horwath disagreed. She said the true purpose of the bill was to give inspectors the power of search and seizure without due process.

The suit charges Beckman, who has been with the commission for 18 years, has taken advantage of his position by using commission funds for personal expenditures. Horwath said the California Department of Food and Agriculture has failed to provide adequate oversight. That, she said, is why the suit seeks a forensic audit of the commission’s records.

Meehan said an independent audit is conducted annually and that the findings of each audit are forwarded to the Department of Food and Agriculture.

MURKY AREA

Meehan said the suit’s allegation that the commission’s actions violated Gonzales Packing’s free speech rights is the only murky area of the suit. She said the U.S. Supreme Court has heard several challenges regarding commissions and marketing orders. Because in each case the high court’s decision was so narrow, Meehan said the law is still in flux.

Unless an extension is requested, Meehan said the commission must file an answer to the suit by Sept. 20.