The attorneys for two North Dakota brothers accused of purposely destroying potatoes to collect millions in insurance payments said Tuesday there's no hard evidence in the case and prosecutors are relying on a key witness who can't be trusted.
Aaron and Derek Johnson, who farmed in the Cooperstown area, are on trial for conspiring to defraud federal crop insurance programs for more than $2 million and making false statements to authorities. Prosecutors say the brothers, among other things, added chemicals to accelerate deterioration, then claimed the damage occurred naturally.
Richard Henderson, Aaron Johnson's attorney, said during opening statements Tuesday that the government has no proof the spoilage was intentional and is basing its allegations mostly on witnesses, including a former farmhand for the two brothers who is serving time in prison.
"No deliberate damage, no case," Henderson told the jury of 10 women and four men.
Authorities say the alleged scheme took place between 2002 and 2010, with the largest claim in 2006. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase said the actions by the Johnsons are equivalent to someone smashing a car with a baseball bat and then making a claim to the insurance company. He said Aaron Johnson invited at least one other person to be part of the activity and bragged about it to others.
"Lots of people knew it," Chase said.
Chase said the brothers used several techniques to accelerate deterioration of the potatoes, including spraying them with a solution that contained Rid-X, which is designed to dissolve solid materials in septic systems. Aaron Johnson, Chase said, made the largest purchase of Rid-X in any Menard's store in North Dakota when he bought the chemical in Grand Forks in 2006.
Henderson responded that "lots and lots of people" have bought several boxes of Rid-X at any one time and he'll prove during the course of the trial that the timing of the purchases will make that evidence meaningless. He said there wasn't a sample taken to show the spuds were affected by the chemical.
Crop insurance for potatoes covers naturally occurring events in the fields, such as bad weather, as well as the wet breakdown of inner potatoes after harvest. It doesn't cover negligence, mismanagement, wrongdoing or failure to follow good farming practices.
Henderson said the brothers could have made more money selling the potatoes on the open market, so it made no sense to destroy them and collect insurance.
Ben Thomas, the attorney for Derek Johnson, said his client should not have been indicted and the majority of the allegations are against Aaron Johnson. Thomas said Derek Johnson told him that the only thing worse than being blamed for something your brother did is being blamed for something your brother didn't do.
"Don't paint two brothers with the same broad brush, even if they are co-defendants in the same trial," Thomas told the jury.