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Government violated 4th Amendment rights of SK Foods' Scott Salyer, his lawyers say

December 16, 2010 |  2:12 pm

Scott SalyerThe food fight continues in the criminal case of Frederick Scott Salyer.

Defense attorneys for Salyer are arguing in court filings that federal prosecutors are trying to keep key evidence away from the former head of tomato processor SK Foods –- evidence, they say, he needs in order to pursue his defense.

Among other things, Salyer’s attorneys are asking a U.S. District judge to suppress evidence federal investigators gathered via an undercover FBI informant who worked as a vice president for the Monterey, Calif., firm.

Salyer, 55, is being blamed for running SK Foods –- the tomato processing outfit he started with his father, Fred -– into bankruptcy and committing crimes far worse. Scott Salyer and SK Foods, the government alleges, tricked supermarkets and big food companies into buying substandard tomato products to put into brands found in almost every U.S. cupboard.

They allegedly conspired to inflate prices on millions of pounds of processed tomatoes sold to 55 companies in 22 states -– an alleged scheme that, according to court documents, ripped off consumers and reaped big profits for Salyer.

Salyer has denied the charges. He was freed on $6.3 million in bail this fall and is under house arrest in Pebble Beach, Calif., awaiting trial.

The latest movement in the case is coming from Salyer’s defense team, which has argued that that the government conducted illegal searches and seizure when they gathered company records from various corporate locations in 2008 and collected evidence from wire taps worn by former SK Foods executive Anthony Manuel.

One of the key issues up for debate is exactly how big SK Foods was at the time of the federal investigation.

Salyer’s attorneys say the April 2008 searches of company sites violated his individual 4th Amendment rights of protection against improper search. The defense team describes the company as a small business that was, essentially, family-run.

While the company employed hundreds of seasonal workers, SK Foods had as few as 16 full-time employees, according to court documents filed by defense attorney Malcolm Segal. The government, though, has tried to merge SK Foods with Salyer’s other business enterprises in order to push forward racketeering charges against the former agribusiness executive, the defense says.

The defense team also recently alleged that the government is using an “immense tranche” of evidence -- by at least one account, as many as 1.5 billion pages of documents -- which Salyer cannot use to defend himself.

Federal prosecutors, however, say that’s not true. They argue that the defense is focusing on the company records simply as a way to delay the criminal proceedings.

Prosecutors have also said that that SK Foods — one of the country’s largest tomato processing firms — was so large in scale that Salyer didn’t have a valid legal challenge to any search, expect perhaps to his personal office.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for March 8 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. 

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: Frederick Scott Salyer, middle, could face at least 20 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Credit: David Royal / Monterey County Herald