An article Thursday on a New York racketeering and bribery probe incorrectly identified U.S. Agriculture Department Inspector General Roger C. Viadero. (Published 10/30/1999)

Eight current and former federal Agriculture Department inspectors working at the giant Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx were arrested yesterday for allegedly taking cash bribes from wholesalers in exchange for slashing the ratings on fruits and vegetables.

The scheme, according to a 65-count racketeering and bribery indictment unsealed in federal court in New York, hurt the nation's farmers by lowering the prices that wholesalers paid for their produce. The alleged wrongdoing was uncovered by the FBI and Agriculture Department officials during a two-and-a-half-year investigation dubbed "Operation Forbidden Fruit."

"A few dishonest fruit and vegetable graders have preyed upon those who can afford it least--our country's small farmers and producers," said Agriculture Department Inspector General Joseph Viadero.

Federal officials said the fraud at the nation's largest produce market had apparently gone on for nearly 20 years before it came crashing down as a team of more than 100 FBI agents and Agriculture Department officials descended on the market yesterday and arrested the defendants, who also included 13 people associated with produce wholesalers.

"The produce wholesalers who paid the inspectors to downgrade produce benefited. . . . They got Grade A goods at Grade B prices," said Lewis D. Schiliro, head of the FBI's New York office. "It's fair to assume they didn't pass the savings on to the consumers. The inspectors took . . . bribes to line their pockets with cold, hard cash."

According to the indictment, the inspectors regularly took cash payments of about $50 per load of produce from owners and employees of produce wholesalers in exchange for agreeing to "downgrade" the fruit and vegetables. That money added up: Schiliro said some federal inspectors received as much as $100,000 annually in bribes.

If convicted of the racketeering charges, the inspectors face maximum 20-year prison sentences. Each of the wholesaler defendants faces a maximum of 15 years in prison on each bribery count.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said he was "appalled" at the alleged criminal activity but also wanted to "emphasize" that it was carried out by "only eight out of more than 100,000 USDA employees."

Marc Rubin, co-president of the Hunts Point Produce Cooperative in the Bronx, said the group was surprised by the allegations. "Hunts Point Cooperative has zero tolerance for any infraction of the law by anyone who works for or is associated with the market," he told Reuters.