Reuters News Service reported today that USDA produce inspectors working at the huge Hunts's Point Terminal Market in New York City were arrested for allegedly taking bribes for two decades from wholesalers to cheat fruit and vegetable growers throughout the country.
The Terminal receives produce from 55 countries and 49 states. It creates about $1.5 billion of business annually. A total of eight current and former inspectors and 13 other defendants at the Terminal located in the Bronx were arrested on a 65-count racketeering and bribery indictment.
The indictment was unsealed in the Manhattan federal court. The charges stem from a two- and one-half-year investigation headed by the New York FBI office.
The scheme, reportedly started in 1980, saw inspectors allegedly take tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to declare that produce coming into the Terminal was of poorer quality than it actually was. Wholesalers could then seek lower prices than those already agreed to with grower/shippers.
The investigation, called "Operation Forbidden Fruit," came from complaints of grower/shippers who told the government they were being cheated in New York and no longer wanted to sell produce there.
"The benefit to the wholesalers was obvious," Lewis Schiliro, head of the New York FBI office said. "They were routinely getting Grade-A produce at Grade-B prices. It's a safe bet they were not passing the savings along to the consumer," Schiliro stated.
In some cases inspectors earned as much as $100,000 in off-the-book income. USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero said the real victims of the scheme were small growers who were routinely cheated.
Marc Rubin, co-president of the Hunt's Point Produce Cooperative, said the group was shocked by the charges. "Hunts Point Cooperative has zero tolerance for any infraction of the law by anyone who works for or is associated with the market," he said.
In addition, Potato Grower Hotline has learned that truckers hauling into the Terminal routinely had to pay bribes to have perishable produce unloaded in a timely fashion. Truckers complained of having had to wait up to six and seven hours.