"Teflon Chicken Don" Jack DeCoster, Agrees to Cruelty Plea
By Martha Rosenberg
The Iowa attorney general called him a "habitual violator" of state laws.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich called his farms "atrocious."
A federal investigator said it was "inconceivable" he didn't know his farms' conditions.
But appearances of egg and hog tycoon noir Austin "Jack" DeCoster in court have been rare -- as have convictions.
Last week DeCoster appeared in the Androscoggin County District Attorney's Office on behalf of Maine Contract Farming which pled guilty to failure to provide adequate shelter and sustenance for10 hens at its Turner egg farm.
To settle the civil charges brought by the state and approved in Lewiston District Court, Maine Contract Farming agreed to pay $25,000 in penalties and $100,000 to the Department of Agriculture for monitoring egg farms against future abuses across the state.
The civil settlement also provides for unannounced inspections, improved staff training and hiring of a veterinarian for Maine Contract Farming's five million hens which are held in battery cages now illegal in some countries and states.
"These chickens are better off now because of this agreement," Assistant District Attorney Andrew Robinson who spearheaded the settlement told the Sun Journal.
An undercover video provided by Mercy For Animals (MFA) last year to state officials depicting live hens suffocating in garbage cans, twirled by their necks in incomplete euthanasia, kicked into manure pits to drown and hanging by their feet over conveyer belts led to a raid in April 2009.
For eight hours agriculture and state officials, including police troopers with a search warrant, documented conditions termed "deplorable, horrifying and upsetting" by state veterinarian Don Hoenig and removed dead and living hens for evidence.
Four Department of Agriculture workers were incapacitated from entering the ammonia filled barns and had to treated by doctors for burned lungs. OSHA launched an investigation. (Where were they before?)
Maine Contract Farming, formerly the DeCoster Egg Farm, has a three decade-long complaint history from workers, neighbors, environmental officials, labor officials and humane workers.
In 1977 neighbors whose homes were infested with insects filed a $5 million lawsuit, claiming nose plugs and flyswatters should be the "new neighbor" kit.
In 1980, the DeCoster operation was charged with employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old by the Labor department.
In 1988, 100,000 chickens burned to death in a fire and were left to decompose.
In 1992, DeCoster was charged by the state, with indenturing migrant workers, denying them contact with teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and labor organizers.
In 1996, federal investigators found DeCoster workers living in rat and cockroach infested housing and the egg operation was fined $3.6 million.
("The conditions in this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen,'' said Labor Secretary Robert Reich; "I thought I was going to faint and I was only there a few minutes,'' said Cesar Britos, an attorney representing DeCoster workers, after entering a barn.")
In 2001 dead hens intermingled with live ones during truck transport sparked a complaint to the Department of Agriculture.
Workers' drinking water has been found contaminated with feces by OSHA and after a conciliatory "free" chicken banquet offered to workers, they were docked for their time eating it, reported the Portland Press Herald.
But Jack DeCoster, using Boston spinmeister George Regan for public relations, avoided criminal convictions and farm closures and even expanded his empire from egg farms in Maine to pig farms in Iowa in the 1990s.
Now, many are hoping, DeCoster's Teflon days are coming to an end.
Last week's settlement marks what is believed the largest monetary penalty for cruelty to farm animals in the nation and the first time states have tapped abusers for the future costs of monitoring them.
The $100,000 will fund increased inspections at a time when budgets and staff are limited Christine Fraser, a Department of Agriculture veterinarian who was instrumental in the settlement, told the Sun Journal. "If we are out there more often, we'll be able to stop things before they get this bad. We might be able to just give some direction short of it becoming a violation and say, 'Don't do that. Do this instead.'"
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy For Animals also hailed the agreement. "Over the next five years, if Maine Contract Farming fails the unannounced inspections it has agreed to, criminal charges will likely be filed."
"We are pleased to put this matter behind us so we can focus on the successful operation of our farm," said Jack DeCoster's son, Jay, who is operations manager at Maine Contract Farming.
It was not a new statement.
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