When mail fraud kills

Danger-signOn September 21, 2015, Stewart Parnell, of Lynchburg, Virginia, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for having knowingly introduced mis-branded, salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products into interstate commerce.

The sentence was groundbreaking. It represented the toughest penalty ever handed down for a corporate executive in a food poisoning case.

Officially, the convictions of Parnell, his brother, Michael, and other executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), were mostly for mail fraud and wire fraud, as well as conspiracy to profit by introducing adulterated peanuts and peanut products into the food supply.

This particular consumer and business fraud resulted in more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning. Nine of the victims died. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the actual number of cases of salmonella poisoning cases linked directly to PCA probably exceeded 22,000.

Why mail and wire fraud?

What many consumers may not know is that both mail fraud and wire fraud statutes are key tools in the ongoing battle to keep all of us from being victimized by fraud–or in this case, being sickened or killed.  In fact, “mail fraud” has been called the federal government’s “first line of defense” against fraud. Here are the key differences between them:

Mail fraud–Mail fraud involves participating in a scheme to obtain money or property by means of false pretenses (among other possible means)–in which the scheme is carried out by sending fraudulent materials via the U.S. Postal Service, or any private or commercial interstate carrier, such as FedEx, or UPS.

Parnell and other executives of the Peanut Corporation of America, fabricated certificates of analysis (COAs) that accompanied shipments of peanut products. They falsely stated that the food they were shipping was free of pathogens. In fact, there had been no testing of some of the peanut products. Worse, a number of lab tests had showed that salmonella pathogens were present. The  COAs accompanying the shipments had been falsified.

The mail fraud statute, in particular, has been broadened in recent years. You’re now likely to see “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” included among the charges and convictions in dozens of types of crimes. Here, from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, are 32 examples of common scams that fall under the heading of mail fraud.

Wire fraud–Wire fraud occurs when when the information used to deceive victims is communicated by phone, radio, TV, or the use of an e-mail server.

To cite just one of many examples of wire fraud committed in this case, Parnell received an e-mail from the plant manager that some of the peanut products about to be shipped to a customer were tainted. Parnell’s reply: “Just ship it.”

There’s no question that under the right circumstances, mail fraud or wire fraud can be used to mislead and steal from any of us.

Hopefully, now that Stewart Parnell and the others at PCA are going to jail, mail fraud involving food products that can poison or even kill us will be less common in the future.

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