(April 29) If justice delayed is justice denied, shippers who were victimized by the Hunts Point bribery scandal know the feeling well.

Criminal cases associated with the 1999 “Forbidden Fruit” investigation were concluded last year. Likewise, a long and often fruitless process by shippers seeking reparations from potentially tainted sales is mostly over.

However, the USDA is just getting started in bringing disciplinary action against parties involved in the scandal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold its first disciplinary hearing in July against a firm involved in the 1999 Hunts Point Bribery scandal, said Bruce Summers, acting chief of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act branch.

Summers spoke on progress of the Hunts Point cases to the 23-member Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, meeting April 16-17 in Washington, D.C.

The first hearing is set for July 9 in federal district court in Manhattan against Koam Produce Inc., New York.

BRIBERY ALLEGATIONS

The USDA initiated an investigation for PACA violations as a result of information disclosed by the Forbidden Fruit investigation conducted by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The administrative action alleges that the company committed several violations of PACA from April through July 1999 in connection with bribes of USDA fruit and vegetable inspectors.

Those downgraded inspections cost seven sellers more than $40,000, the USDA said.

The USDA was asked to wait on its PACA disciplinary actions until after the federal investigation and prosecutions were finished, Summers said.

Sanctions being sought against the licensees will range from revocation of licenses to suspension to monetary fines, he added. Six other firms remain under investigation at this time, he said. No hearing dates have been set for the other firms, nor would Summers identify those firms.

HUNTS POINT HISTORY

Summers outlined in broad brushstrokes the history of the scandal and PACA enforcement actions to the advisory committee.

In October 1999, federal indictments were handed down to numerous individuals for their involvement in a bribery scheme involving fruit and vegetable buyers and USDA inspectors on the Hunts Point Terminal Market, he said.

The investigation was led by the Inspector General with assistance from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and the FBI. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York prosecuted the cases.

Sixteen individuals from 14 firms were indicted on the charge of bribing USDA inspectors. The inspectors accepted bribes to downgrade product.

Of the 16 individuals affiliated with the New York market, 11 pleaded guilty, two were convicted and one was acquitted; two others were cooperating witnesses.

Four companies of those affiliated with the bribery cases have gone out of business, he said.

Of the nine USDA inspectors implicated, Summers said nine have been convicted and eight have been sentenced. One inspector was a cooperating witness with the U.S. Attorney’s office.