By Richard K. De Atley, Ben Goad, Leslie Berkman, PressEnterprise.com
The U.S. government says a now-defunct company wouldn't have qualified for school lunch contracts.
A Chino meatpacker that supplied beef for the National School Lunch Program knowingly slaughtered and processed "downer" cattle -- animals too hurt or sick to stand -- at least once every six weeks for nearly four years, the federal government claims in a lawsuit.
The U.S. Department of Justice action filed in federal court seeks damages from individuals and corporations associated with the now-closed Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which gained international attention when undercover videos showed cows being abused at the plant in late 2007.
The action filed in Riverside Federal Court also claims Westland/Hallmark purposely hid from legal disclosure a partner who was a twice-convicted felon.
The total amount being sought was unclear. The government wants three times whatever damages may be determined in the case.
Defendants or attorneys representing them declined comment on the lawsuit. One attorney said defense legal papers will offer a different view of events.
"I don't know what the heck they are suing for -- a lot of money," said Donald R. Hallmark by phone. Hallmark, who the government says has been a partner in Hallmark Meat Packing, did not want to comment further, and declined to give the name of his attorney.
The Humane Society of the United States initially filed the lawsuit as a whistleblower under the False Claims Act and sought $150 million in damages. The Justice Department announced in May that it was joining the suit.
The federal lawsuit, filed Aug. 21, claims the downer cattle processing and the hidden business partner were fraudulent acts that would have made it impossible for Westland/Hallmark to obtain or keep contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The amended complaint reflects months of additional research and interviews.
Charles Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department's civil division, declined to elaborate Wednesday on the evidence that led them to the charge.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle suggested the Justice Department would not waste its time suing for nonexistent money.
"It looks like this is a very serious government action," Pacelle said. "They must believe there are some resources there to be liquidated."
The footage by an undercover Humane Society investigator hired as a pen worker showed downer cows being beaten, shocked, sprayed with high-pressure hoses, dragged with chains and rammed with a forklift, all apparently so they would walk into the "kill box."
A subsequent recall included some 143 million pounds of beef from the plant, though much of the meat had already been eaten by schoolchildren. In April 2008, the Department of Agriculture told owners of Westland/Hallmark that they were financially liable for $67.2 million in costs associated with the recall.
Westland/Hallmark's president Steve Mendell told lawmakers in a congressional hearing that the plant had rules prohibiting the slaughter of downers. Mendell said he was unaware of such activity at Westland/Hallmark until he saw the video footage.
But the federal lawsuit says Westland/Hallmark gained its government contracts by fraud because it knew all along that it had falsely claimed compliance with government regulations that forbid processing downer cattle.
The slaughter and processing of downer cattle continued from Jan. 12, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2007, the lawsuit claims.
"That's criminal. What's the difference between that and abusing a child in another way, if they knew about it?" asked Jean Barsness, director of nutrition services for the Banning Unified School District. That district had to dispose of 1,150 pounds of Westland/Hallmark meat after the plant's beef was recalled.
The lawsuit also says Westland/Hallmark concealed a business partner, Aaron Magidow, who was a twice-convicted felon.
If Magidow's presence in the company was known, Westland/Hallmark would not have been eligible for Department of Agriculture contracts, the lawsuit said.
His criminal record included a 1974 conviction for bribing federal meat inspectors and a 1983 conviction for participating in a fraudulent meat purchasing scheme. Magidow died Aug. 7, 2006.
Magidow's name was found on a bank account signature card for a Hallmark Meat Packing account, with Magidow identified on the card as a partner in the company along with its three other alleged partners, Donald W. Hallmark and his son, Donald R. Hallmark, both of Ontario, and Mendell, of Corona Del Mar, the lawsuit said.
When Westland/Hallmark closed in 2008, the general manager was Anthony Magidow. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and it was unclear how he was related to Aaron Magidow.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips gave defendants until Oct. 13 to answer the government's lawsuit.
"Our pleadings will give a different spin on the events," said Los Angeles attorney Walter S. Weiss, who represents Magidow's estate. He declined further comment.
James J. Gallagher, the attorney representing the corporations named in the lawsuit, also declined.
A listed number for Donald W. Hallmark rang and then disconnected on two attempts. Two messages seeking comment were made to a phone number that an answering machine identified as Mendell's residence. There was no reply.
Government officials emphasized that there was little chance that any of the cows in question harbored mad cow disease and described the public health threat as "vanishingly small." The invariably fatal disease often takes years to incubate in humans. There have been no verified cases of illness from the processed meat.
The new allegation that dozens of downers were slaughtered for food -- not just those seen on the video -- doesn't significantly raise the likelihood that the disease was spread, since there has only been one known case in the U.S. and the nation slaughters some 100 million cows every year, said Dr. Michael Greger, the director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States.
The Justice Department hasn't shared its findings with the Humane Society, but the added allegations bolster the group's repeated assertions that the slaughter of downer cows in the U.S. is a widespread problem.
"It puts to bed once and for all that the rumor that our investigation found an isolated incident," said Humane Society attorney Jonathan Lovvorn.
Further, the addition of several new defendants indicates that more people were aware of the alleged conduct and benefited from it, he said.
San Bernardino County prosecutors charged two employees seen abusing animals on the video.
One pleaded guilty to three counts of illegal movement of a downer animal and was sentenced to six months in jail and deported to Mexico. The second pleaded no contest to two counts of animal cruelty and another of moving a downer animal. He was sentenced to nine months in jail.
Westland/Hallmark had shut down by February 2008 and was sold. The plant re-opened in November 2008 under new owners, American Beef Packers Inc. It has no relationship with the previous operation.