By RYAN J. FOLEY
IOWA CITY, Iowa — A manager at the Iowa egg farms linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010 pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in a conspiracy to bribe a federal inspector to allow the sale of unapproved eggs.
Former DeCoster Farms manager Tony Wasmund acknowledged he conspired with at least one other person to bribe a public official in order to sell restricted eggs and misbranded food during a plea hearing in Sioux City, federal prosecutors said.
Wasmund, 61, of Wilmar, Minn., is a former manager in the network of companies owned by Jack DeCoster, whose huge egg production operations in rural northern Iowa were blamed for the outbreak that caused the recall of 550 million eggs and sickened roughly 2,000. He is the first to face charges from the government’s criminal investigation of the outbreak, which has involved an Iowa-based grand jury hearing testimony from former workers.
“What I am able to say is that he was cooperative with the government and that the charging instrument filed today was the result of an agreement between the parties,” said Wasmund’s attorney, Richard M. Kerger. He said his client had “supervisory responsibilities” at some DeCoster enterprises, including those in Wright County.
The charging document says that in April 2010, months before the outbreak, Wasmund authorized giving $300 in petty cash to be used by another employee to bribe a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector assigned to DeCoster’s Wright County Egg. The goal was to influence the inspector to approve sales of shell eggs that had been withheld for failing to meet USDA standards, the document said.
The document provided no more details on the conspiracy such as who else was involved and whether the bribe was successful. It also did not mention the salmonella outbreak. Prosecutors said additional details would be made public later.
Documents made public earlier this year show that Wasmund was aware of the presence of salmonella in DeCoster’s chicken houses and in the animals themselves in the months before the outbreak. An Iowa State University laboratory sent reports to Wasmund in May 2010 showing that salmonella was present in the internal organs of dead chickens that were tested.
Prosecutors did not seek Wasmund’s detention, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Leonard Strand ordered him released pending sentencing, which has not been set.
Wasmund faces up to five years in prison for the felony violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which punishes corporate fraud aimed at regulators and consumers, according to the plea deal.
Attorney F. Montgomery Brown is representing Jack DeCoster’s son, Peter DeCoster, who ran the day-to-day operations of the farms. He said he has not seen the charges against Wasmund, but does not believe his client is a target of the conspiracy investigation.
“I was aware that this matter may come to a head at some point in time,” he said. “I have no information in my possession suggesting that Peter DeCoster is an unnamed co-conspirator in this matter.”
R. Scott Rhinehart, a lawyer representing former DeCoster financial officer Patsy Larson, said Wednesday his client has testified in front of the grand jury on multiple occasions and provided documents as requested. He said he has now been assured by a prosecutor that Larson is “not a target” after the investigation shifted its focus.
“I sense it’s kind of a roving investigation,” he said. “I don’t sense there’s any real direction to it.”
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