The final blow in the ignominious fall of Frederick Scott Salyer will come today when the one-time California land baron and tomato king is sentenced to federal prison for a sweeping bribery and conspiracy scheme.
If all goes as planned, the 57-year-old scion of one of the state's most storied and prominent farming families will be sentenced to between four and seven years in prison and face a fine that could surpass $1 million.
But few things go as planned when it comes to Salyer, who sought to thwart the government probe of his far-flung business affairs and fought his own prosecution for more than two years before pleading guilty last March to racketeering and price fixing.
Salyer's lawyers portray the once fabulously wealthy agriculture magnate as a broken man deserving of mercy, a generous giver to charities who has fallen millions of dollars into debt and descended into alcoholism that includes drinking up to two bottles of wine or 10 to 12 tumblers of vodka a day.
The saga stems from Salyer's insatiable appetite to expand his business, a drive that consumed him despite the fact that his Monterey-based SK Foods LP was recording sales of more than $700 million a year until it collapsed in 2009 under the weight of the government's investigation.
The probe uncovered a 10-year conspiracy to corner the nation's market for tomato products such as ketchup, salsa and paste that drove up food prices for consumers nationwide. The effort included bribing buyers at some of the nation's largest food companies, including Kraft Foods and Frito-Lay, to jack up prices for his company's products and corrupt the bidding process.
In court, Salyer eventually admitted that he ran SK Foods as a racketeering enterprise. Despite the scope of the conspiracy, the government agreed to a plea bargain last year that allowed Salyer to plead to only two counts.
"He has lost his business and his home, suffered personal financial ruin and lost all standing in his community and the business world," his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed last week in federal court in Sacramento. "Although his flaws brought it on, Mr. Salyer's fall from grace is of ancient Greek tragic proportion."
The memorandum which Salyer's attorneys sought to file under seal until The Bee and the government won a court order barring that goes so far as to describe how his fiercest business competitor, who helped spark the probe that led to his downfall, managed to purchase Salyer's Lake Tahoe getaway home.
It is an undeniable reversal of fortune for a man whose grandfather used guile and two-fisted tactics to help build California into an agriculture giant and acquire more than 100,000 acres of farmland.
But Salyer hardly seems broken. Even as his lawyers seek mercy, the court papers and a website purportedly set up by supporters www.scott-salyer.com describe a conspiracy among his business rivals, the news media and others who have wronged him.
The website, which features a photo of Salyer smiling from the cockpit of one of his private planes, describes the government's investigation as a "notorious, corrupt soap opera."
His lawyers say he should be sentenced to four years, at most, with credit given for the seven months he spent in the Sacramento County Main Jail and nearly 2 1/2 years of house arrest in his 16-room Pebble Beach mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They suggest a fine of $20,000 and describe how Salyer has spent his time under house arrest and monitored around the clock.
"On many days, Mr. Salyer has done little except sit at home, read, follow events of the world on the Internet, contemplate his predicament and drink alcohol," his lawyers wrote in court papers.
Federal prosecutors have taken note of Salyer's apparent lack of contrition, and have a different view of how U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton should proceed.
They are pressing for a sentence of seven years and a fine of $1.25 million, even though federal sentencing guidelines pencil out to a range of 10 to 12 1/2 years in prison. Curiously, the prosecutors' papers offer no reasons for this leniency. Defendants who strike a plea deal that resolves relative uncertainty over sentencing and saves the government the cost of a complicated and protracted trial are given some consideration, but not three years less than the low end of sentencing guidelines unless they are cooperating with the government in an investigation.
" 'Greek tragedy' is a little too dramatic to characterize what happened here," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew D. Segal wrote in his response to Salyer's lawyers. "Defendant cheated his customers, creditors and ex-wives. They found out, cut him off and pursued remedies in various civil cases.
"Not all of Salyer's personal history and characteristics favor leniency," Segal acknowledged, noting that government wiretaps captured the tomato king proving "himself as an unabashed bigot" who once mused about whether a prospective employee's name sounded Jewish because he did not want any Jews "in here." He also is caught on tape using derogatory terms for Japanese clients and African Americans.
In 2005, court documents state, Salyer chatted with a co-conspirator about a rival who "was ruining his business, and suggested that it would be great if he was run over by a truck."
Then, Salyer asked the co-conspirator "if there was someone in New Jersey who could take care of" the rival. The co-conspirator said there was, but he did not pursue it, and Salyer didn't bring it up again.
In its case against Salyer, the government also accused him of peddling old, moldy tomato products that could not legally be sold in this country and slapping organic labels on produce that was grown conventionally.
Millions of pounds of these products were sold to companies such as ketchup maker Heinz Inc. and baby food purveyor Gerber Products.
The government has said the violations did not put consumers' health at risk, but prosecutors are willing to go only so far when it comes to dealing with Salyer's claims.
Segal rejects a contention by Salyer's lawyers that the mold content of SK Foods products was not as bad as portrayed. "The government cannot re-test those millions of pounds of high-mold paste," Segal noted. "That evidence was destroyed when people ate it."
Prosecutors also do not agree with the insistence on the part of Salyer's lawyers that his seven months in the downtown Sacramento jail were "truly hard time" that left him malnourished and "physically and psychologically distressed."
Segal counters that Salyer was given generous treatment in jail, including personal visits from a woman whom Segal described as his attorney and also a girlfriend.
"Salyer is simply the kind of person who seems never able to pass up an opportunity to take an angle through deceit," Segal wrote. "While in pretrial custody, he was given extraordinary access to his attorneys in the jail.
"He used that privilege to smuggle in pornography, have lascivious conversations with his bar-member girlfriend and apparently have unmonitored visits with her."