A federal grand jury in Madison, Wisconsin, returned an indictment charging a corn milling company, a company vice president, two environmental coordinators and three additional supervisors with crimes related to worker safety, fraud, air pollution and obstruction of justice, the Department of Justice announced.
Two former company supervisors previously pleaded guilty to related charges in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
According to the indictment handed down on May 11, Didion Milling Inc. (DMI) owned and operated a corn mill in Cambria, Wisconsin. Grain milling generates large amounts of grain dust, and DMI was required to regularly clean dust accumulations from inside the mill in order to prevent both food safety and quality issues and to remove accumulations that could fuel combustible dust explosions. DMI was also required to operate and maintain air pollution control devices called baghouses to reduce emissions of grain dust — a form of particulate matter pollutant — into the environment. The indictment alleges that DMI was further required to document the completion of routine cleanings inside the mill and the routine monitoring of baghouses to prevent dust emissions outside of the mill.
The indictment alleges that DMI willfully violated two federal safety standards promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) — by (1) by failing to develop and implement a written program to effectively prevent and remove combustible grain dust accumulations, and (2) by failing to install explosion venting or explosion suppression on a dust filter collector — thereby causing the deaths of five employees due to a combustible dust explosion at DMI’s corn mill on May 31, 2017.
The indictment further alleges that DMI; its vice president of operations, Derrick Clark, 48 of Waunakee, Wisconsin; its former food safety superintendent, Shawn Mesner, 44 of Readstown, Wisconsin; its former shift superintendent, Anthony Hess, 54 of Pardeeville, Wisconsin; and its former shift superintendent, Joel Niemeyer, 39 of Baraboo, Wisconsin; conspired to commit fraud by agreeing to take deceptive measures to conceal the failure to adhere to food safety procedures at the mill, including by falsifying the cleaning logbook to conceal the fact that DMI was not following its written cleaning schedule, so that DMI could maintain its food safety certification and continue to sell its products to food and beverage manufacturers.
DMI, Clark, Mesner, Hess and Niemeyer, along with DMI’s former environmental coordinators James Lenz, 65 of Deerfield, Wisconsin, and Joseph Winch, 66, of Logansport, Indiana, also were indicted for conspiracy to commit federal offenses in order to conceal violations and unsafe conditions from auditors and government agencies. The alleged conspiracy included an agreement to falsify cleaning logs and baghouse monitoring logs, submit false environmental compliance certifications, and provide false testimony on matters within the jurisdictions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
DMI and individual defendants are further charged in the indictment with related substantive offenses. Hess, Clark and DMI are charged with obstruction of justice for providing false and misleading testimony to OSHA after the May 2017 explosion concerning their knowledge of combustible dust hazards at DMI.
Former DMI shift superintendents Michael Bright, 36, of Merrill, Wisconsin, and Nicholas Booker, 42, of Cambria, Wisconsin, previously pleaded guilty to making false entries in DMI’s cleaning logbook and false entries in DMI’s baghouse log, which involved matters within the jurisdiction of OSHA and EPA, respectively.
The OSH Act makes it a misdemeanor for an employer to willfully violate a safety standard, and that violation cause death to any employee. If convicted of the OSH Act offenses, DMI may be ordered to make restitution to victims as compensation for their pecuniary losses, fined, and sentenced to corporate probation with conditions. If convicted of fraud conspiracy, a defendant may be sentenced to a maximum term of incarceration of 20 years in prison, fined not more than $1 million and ordered to forfeit assets derived from fraud. If convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses and other substantive offenses set forth in the indictment, a defendant may face maximum terms of incarceration ranging from five to 20 years in prison and fines up to $1 million depending on the crime of conviction. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division made the announcement. EPA’s Criminal Investigative Division is investigating the case.
An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.