Coroner: Leader of large organic food scheme dies by suicide

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A Missouri farmer blamed for running the largest organic food fraud scheme in U.S. history has died by suicide, weeks before he was to report to federal prison to begin serving a 10-year term, a coroner said Tuesday.

Police officers found Randy Constant dead in a vehicle in his garage at his home in Chillicothe, Missouri on Monday evening, hours after federal investigators held a news conference in Iowa to highlight the prison sentence he had received. Livingston County Coroner Scott Lindley said he concluded that Constant died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and that finding was confirmed by a post-mortem examination at the University of Missouri Medical Center.

A federal judge sentenced Constant at a hearing on Friday for leading what prosecutors dubbed the “Field of Schemes fraud.” But he granted Constant the ability to self-report to prison in coming weeks after the Bureau of Prisons decided where to place him, a routine accommodation for white-collar defendants.

“We are still in shock and disbelief over yesterday’s events, when my husband took his own life,” Constant’s wife, Pam, said in a statement. “I know Randy was deeply ashamed of his conduct. As much as we tried to be there for him … it was clearly just too much for Randy.”

She said he would be remembered as “a wonderful father, community leader, tireless volunteer and my beloved husband of 39 years.”

The death comes as federal law enforcement officials are under fire for failing to prevent the suicide of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a Manhattan jail while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Prosecutors say Constant falsely marketed non-organic corn and soybeans as certified organic on a massive scale. His sales amounted to 7 percent of organic corn grown in the U.S. in 2016 and 8 percent of the organic soybeans. Overall, from 2010 to 2017, he sold more than 11.5 million bushels of grain, or enough to fill 3,600 rail cars, prosecutors said.

Constant owned an Iowa-based brokerage, which sold his grain primarily as feed for chickens and cattle. Those animals were then marketed for their meat and meat products that were advertised as organic.

U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams said during the sentencing that Constant’s fraud did “extreme and incalculable damage” to consumers and undermined confidence in the nation’s organic food industry. He said consumers were fooled into paying extra to buy products ranging from eggs to steak that they believed were better for the environment and their health. Instead, they purchased food that relied on farming practices they opposed, including the use of chemical pesticides to grow crops.

Williams also gave prison terms to three Overton, Nebraska, farmers whom Constant recruited to join the scheme. Michael Potter, 41, was ordered to serve two years behind bars; James Brennan, 41, was sentenced to one year, eight months; and his father, 71-year-old Tom Brennan, was given a three-month sentence.

Prosecutors did not seek their immediate detention in federal custody, which is routine for defendants who are not seen as dangerous or flight risks.

Williams gave all four the option of entering custody immediately, surrendering in two weeks to a regional U.S. Marshals office, or self-reporting to the prison designated by the bureau of prisons. All four chose the final option, which typically might give a defendant three to six more weeks of freedom before incarceration. Williams warned they would have to pay their own way and show up on time or face potential legal consequences.

Constant had been free on bond since pleading guilty to wire fraud last December, and had cooperated with investigators since 2017. He apologized to his victims and his family and appeared to be in decent spirits Friday, smiling at times and thanking his lawyer Mark Weinhardt.

Weinhardt described his client last week as a 60-year-old “pillar of the community” who had served on the school board and donated his time and money to local causes and the Methodist church. He said he was stunned by the contradiction between Constant’s record of good deeds and his lengthy fraud.

“Mr. Constant is a real puzzle,” he said.

He said that Constant would be broke and unable to farm for the rest of his life. He had sold his home and his wife had returned to teaching to support the family, Weinhardt said.

Prosecutors had introduced evidence that Constant often traveled to Las Vegas during the scheme, spending money on gambling and women with whom he had sexual relationships.

Constant’s death came as authorities publicized his prison term, which they said would deter other farmers from defrauding the National Organic Program.

“Randy Constant and his co-conspirators lied to the American public and cheated thousands of consumers,” U.S. Attorney Peter E. Deegan Jr. said. “For years, Constant put personal greed and self-interest above all else.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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