If someone cheated you out of $18 million, you'd probably want a chance to get it back, even if the thief was broke and on his way to prison.
On Friday, a federal appellate panel agreed with that concept, issuing an opinion in the tawdry case of F. Scott Salyer, the onetime "tomato king" of California,who is scheduled to report for a six-year prison term next month.
Salyer was sentenced in February after taking a plea deal for his role in a massive bribery and corruption scheme. He says the legal fallout from the case has left him penniless and disgraced.
But that didn't wash for his victims, especially the Morning Star Packing Co., which has zealously pursued Salyer since he became entangled in a web of criminal prosecution, civil antitrust lawsuits and bankruptcy.
Morning Star, based in Woodland, operates massive tomato processing plants in Williams and Los Banos, and was rebuffed sharply two weeks ago when it went to federal court in Sacramento, trying to get some of its money back.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton cut off the company's lawyer in short order, telling him the effort was "absurd" because Salyer doesn't have any money left. "He's broke," the judge declared curtly.
But they play hardball in the lucrative tomato business, and Morning Star President Chris Rufer, whose own assistant allegedly was bribed to get into Rufer's home computer for Salyer, wasn't rolling over.
Morning Star went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals along with another Salyer victim, Liberty Packing Co., and on Friday a panel of three judges ordered Karlton to hold restitution hearings for victims of Salyer's greed.
The panel decided that federal law allows victims to seek restitution even if the culprit is penniless.
The published opinion means the Salyer case once again will be in the limelight in Sacramento federal court, and that 15 companies claiming to be out a total of $33 million can seek restitution orders from Karlton.
Morning Star, founded by Rufer in 1970, when he owned one truck, now sells about $350 million worth of diced tomatoes and paste annually, about 40 percent of the U.S. market.
His company figures Salyer cheated Morning Star out of $18 million by bribing products buyers at Kraft Foods and Frito-Lay to get them to buy from Salyer's SK Foods instead of Morning Star and to share Morning Star's confidential bids with SK Foods.
Court documents filed over the years leave little doubt that the competition has been fierce between Rufer, a self-made, rough-and-tumble entrepreneur, and Salyer, one of the heirs to his family's agriculture-based fortune.
Morning Star's petition to the 9th Circuit alleged that Salyer had an associate bribe Rufer's personal assistant to get financial secrets off Rufer's home computer.
Salyer's lawyers have noted that since their client's downfall, Rufer has managed to buy Salyer's getaway home at Lake Tahoe.
Rufer's daughter drives a sport-utility vehicle with a license-plate frame that reads "Tomato Princess" and noted in a recent email to The Bee that Salyer's share of the tomato products business never came near to making him a "tomato king."
"At the height of its success, Salyer's SK Foods was 14 percent of the total California processed tomato market," Karrie Rufer wrote. "Morning Star is currently triple that market share and has been the leading tomato processor in California, and the world, for over a decade."
Federal prosecutors sided with Morning Star in court papers, saying the company "is entitled to the relief that it seeks."
But Salyer's lawyers asked the 9th Circuit to reject the effort, noting that the plea agreement Salyer accepted did not include guilty pleas to any counts involving Morning Star, thus Karlton was right in concluding that hearing arguments on restitution from a destitute prison inmate would be a waste of time.
But the 9th Circuit panel said that, in making that finding, Karlton relied on his determination that Salyer is broke and his victims have the option of pursuing him through civil proceedings.
Those two reasons are not legally good enough, the three judges said. They found Karlton "committed legal error" and ordered him to hold hearings "to determine whether to award restitution to any victims."
Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.