Mr. (Tainted) Peanut Pleads the Fifth

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 12, 2009

In another time, Stew Parnell, the man whose peanut butter killed eight people and sickened 550 more, would have been put in the stocks or the pillory. Congress didn't have such tools at its disposal yesterday, so lawmakers did the modern equivalent: They put him through the walk of shame.

The House commerce committee hauled Parnell up to testify under subpoena, even though lawmakers knew the Peanut Corporation of America boss would take the Fifth. Before calling him to the witness table, they heard from the grieving relatives of Parnell's victims. They made him take the oath, then invited him to sample some of product he shipped even though he knew it had tested positive for salmonella. Finally, they forced him and his lawyers to take a quarter-mile perp walk on Capitol Hill, chased by television cameras and reporters jamming microphones in his face and shouting questions:

"Mr. Parnell, did you put profits ahead of the public's health?"

"People died, sir. Do you have anything to say to their families?"

Parnell, limping as he fled on foot, jaywalked across Independence Avenue, stealing anxious glances at the pursuing pack of cameras as his lawyer urgently worked his cellphone to locate their getaway car. The fleeing peanut tycoon had to backtrack when his entourage was blocked by a fence on the Capitol grounds, eventually finding their Suburban near the U.S. Botanic Garden. Only when the cameras had given up the chase did Parnell smile and accept a congratulatory pat on the back from a colleague.

Parnell, it would seem, is a man without shame. His company, the FDA says, knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted products at least a dozen times, endangering the elderly in nursing homes, children in school-lunch programs, and everybody who eats Keebler cookies, Clif Bars or 1,900 other items made with Parnell's bad nuts. Yet Parnell and his colleagues couldn't be bothered to attend the first panel during yesterday's hearing, when three men spoke of their relatives who had died or been sickened by Peanut Corporation's food. Invited to show a dollop of remorse, Parnell declined.

"You heard the last panel, did you not?" asked Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the commerce subcommittee holding the hearing.

"On advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me in the United States Constitution," Parnell answered in a mechanical Southern drawl.

"I just asked if you heard the other panel," Stupak pointed out. Parnell repeated his Fifth Amendment right.

It's not clear that yesterday's hearing will lead to a legislative fix; what Parnell's company did, after all, is already against the law. But to deter others as brazen as Parnell, a searing public censure may be every bit as important as the criminal prosecution he probably will face. For once, lawmakers' grandstanding served a useful purpose.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) held up a plastic container wrapped in yellow caution tape. He vowed to ask Parnell to "sample some of the products that he didn't think were a problem sending out to the rest of us." Walden displayed a poster-sized e-mail from Parnell, who, referring to products that had tested positive for salmonella, wrote: "Let's turn them loose."

More damning e-mails followed: Parnell's complaint that the positive salmonella tests were "costing us huge $$$$$"; his letter to employees after many positive salmonella tests saying, "We have never found any salmonella at all"; and his plea when the FDA shut down his plant that his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money." Yet another Parnell e-mail -- responding to a frantic note from an employee saying "this lot is presumptive on SALMONELLA!!!!" -- said: "I go thru this about once a week."

Next in the shaming of Parnell: the victims' families. Jeffrey Almer, from Minnesota, placed a photo of his mother on the witness table. "Cancer couldn't claim her, but peanut butter did," he said. "PCA now has the blood of eight victims on their hands and the shattered health of 600 others." Another man, Lou Tousignant, showed a photo montage of his father while soft music played. Finally, police officer Peter Hurley spoke of his son's salmonella poisoning, while the 3-year-old and his sisters squirmed and played in the front row.

"I wonder if Mr. Parnell is in the audience," Walden said. Silence. "Is Mr. Parnell in the audience?" More silence. "I would think that the least he could have done was to be here to hear your comments, to hear about your loved ones," the congressman continued.

Minutes later, the chunky Parnell, his face puffy and his hands clasped in front of him, took his place at the table, while the victims' families watched from the first row and from the committee staff room.

Stupak asked whether he put "food products into interstate commerce that you knew to be contaminated with salmonella." Parnell read his Fifth Amendment refusal.

"The food poisoning of people -- is that just a cost of doing business?" Stupak asked. Parnell, sounding weary, repeated his line.

Walden held up his container. "Would you be willing to take the lid off and eat any of these products now, like the people on the panel ahead of you, their relatives and loved ones did?"

Parnell took the Fifth on the salmonella snack offer.

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