One defendant was sent home to care for his ailing wife, despite prosecutors insisting he deserved prison; the other was sentenced to a three-year prison term over the objections of the same prosecutors, who said he deserved less.
This was how justice was meted out Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton as he imposed the latest sentences in the government’s seven-year probe and prosecution of bribery and racketeering in California’s tomato processing industry.
Alan Scott Huey was the first Tuesday to answer for his crimes. He has admitted to knowing about the conspiracies hatched by SK Foods President F. Scott Salyer to bribe food industry officials and label old and moldy tomato products as fit for human consumption.
Huey, a 57-year-old former vice president of Monterey-based SK Foods, stood before Karlton as his father and two children sat in the rear of the courtroom. They watched as the judge openly anguished for half an hour about how to proceed.
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Prosecutors were seeking a 20-month sentence for Huey, who has cooperated from the moment the FBI showed up at his doorstep in 2008, and who pleaded guilty in 2009 to mail fraud and delivering misbranded food into interstate commerce.
Huey’s lawyer, Cristina Arguedas, asked for probation to allow her client to remain at home to care for his wife, Norma, his high school sweetheart who suffered a massive stroke in February 2012 and is solely dependent on him for care.
“It’s absolutely clear that this is the kind of case where people ought to go to prison,” Karlton said, declaring that Huey was driven by “simple greed.”
“It’s inexcusable,” the judge said, adding that the case “is a crime against society.”
But then he began musing about the impact on Huey’s wife if he sent him away.
“Let’s be honest and candid,” Karlton said. “There’s a substantial chance that if I put him in prison something disastrous is going to happen.”
At one point, Karlton started to suggest he put off sentencing for six months to see how Huey’s wife progresses, but then he recalled that he will be gone from the bench by then because of his Oct. 1 retirement, announced last week.
“No matter what I do (it) is wrong,” Karlton said before sentencing Huey to three years’ probation, including six months of home confinement and, after a last-second suggestion from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dolan, 60 days of jail time to be served on weekends.
The next defendant did not fare as well.
Randall Lee Rahal, a 65-year-old New Jersey sales broker who now lives in Massachusetts, was seeking a sentence of nine months in prison and nine months of home confinement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal asked for 26 months in prison and cited Rahal’s cooperation as “honest, complete and credible,” noting that, as the first defendant to plead guilty to his role in the scandal, he paved the path for others to follow suit.
He entered a guilty plea in December 2008 to conspiracies involving racketeering, price fixing, bid rigging and contract allocation, as well as money laundering.
Rahal used money from Salyer’s company to bribe purchasing managers to buy from SK Foods rather than competitors, and he urged Karlton on Tuesday to send him to prison.
“I’m a liar and I’m a cheat and I’m a corrupter,” Rahal told the judge, adding: “I should go to prison. There’s nothing else to say. I knew what I was doing.”
Rahal, a beefy man with a large bald head, described for Karlton how he had always wanted to amount to something.
“I wanted to be somebody,” Rahal said, fighting back sobs. “I wanted to be at the head of the table.”
He recounted an unhappy childhood in which he lost all his hair at the age of 10 and was bullied and ostracized by schoolmates and subjected to harsh treatment by his father.
His attorney, Christopher Adams, said the toll of a life in ruins in the aftermath of the investigation by the FBI and the IRS has been severe. Rahal has had a heart attack, has gained 100 pounds and has had to have two artificial hips, Adams said.
But Rahal did not ask for mercy and Karlton obliged, sentencing him to 36 months in an uncharacteristic decision that went beyond what the government was seeking.
“My view is that your client is about as guilty as Mr. Salyer,” the judge told Rahal’s attorneys.
Salyer, the leader of the conspiracy that engulfed a total of 10 defendants, pleaded guilty last year and is serving a six-year sentence. All the others have pleaded guilty, and two remain to be sentenced.