Two North Dakota brothers were convicted Thursday of intentionally destroying potatoes to collect crop insurance payments in a scheme that prosecutors said defrauded the federal government of about $2 million.
Jurors found Aaron Johnson, 50, and Derek Johnson, 47, of the Cooperstown area, guilty of conspiring to receive illegal payments and giving false statements.
Prosecutors said the brothers exploited the federal government's crop insurance program, meant to help farmers recover from losses due to naturally occurring events, including bad weather and the wet breakdown of inner potatoes after harvest. Prosecutors said that among other things, the brothers used chemicals to accelerate deterioration.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase said that the crop insurance program is based on trust. "The fact that they so blatantly violated that trust makes me very pleased about the verdict," he said in a telephone interview after the verdict was announced.
Defense attorneys had argued that prosecutors have no hard evidence against their clients.
Defense attorneys in their closing arguments hammered away at the credibility of witness Leo Borgen, a former farmhand for the brothers who outlined what Chase had called the "criminal circle" in the case that included Borgen and the two Johnsons. Borgen is serving prison time for sexually assaulting another man in 2009 and was also charged with lying to police.
Ben Thomas, Derek Johnson's attorney, said Borgen "leveraged money and favors from the government," including $1,200 for his testimony and a transfer from the state penitentiary in Bismarck to a jail in Jamestown.
"Does a convicted rapist deserve that kind of treatment?" Thomas asked.
Prosecutors said his testimony was backed up by other witnesses, some of whom heard Aaron Johnson brag about the alleged scheme. Defense attorneys said the claim that many people knew about the scam was typical small-town gossip with no truth.
The brothers were accused of adding spoiled and frozen potatoes to the stored crop and using portable heaters to warm the warehouse above 80 degrees, in attempt to make the potatoes deteriorate faster. The defendants, prosecutors said, found that the best way to wreck the crop was using Rid-X, a chemical that's designed to dissolve solid materials in septic systems.
Richard Henderson, Aaron Johnson's attorney, pointed out that authorities did no sampling or testing for Rid-X.
Chase said he was pleased that several farmers in the community testified at the brothers' trial about the status of their own potato crops around the time the Johnsons were being reimbursed for bad potatoes.
Neil Fulton, who leads the public defender's office and is a spokesman for Aaron Johnson, said in an email late Thursday that he was disappointed and would discuss options with him before sentencing.
Each brother faces up to 20 years in prison at sentencing.