Man accused in spud case wants conviction excluded

Farm Forum

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — One of two brothers accused of scamming the government out of $2 million in crop insurance payments says a previous conviction should not be allowed as evidence in next week’s trial.

Aaron Johnson, 50, and Derek Johnson, 47, who grew potatoes in the Carrington area, are charged in federal court with conspiring to receive illegal payments by intentionally damaging the spuds. They have pleaded not guilty. Trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

Aaron Johnson’s lawyers want his 1995 conviction in a farm-related case excluded from testimony on grounds it would lead the jury to believe he was guilty on the current charges. The government argued it should be admissible to show motive or intent.

A hearing to discuss Johnson’s prior conviction and other proposed evidence in the case was originally scheduled Monday in Fargo. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson postponed the hearing one day because Derek Johnson was travelling and was not in court.

“I believe we have a constitutional problem,” Erickson told Ben Thomas, Aaron Johnson’s attorney. “I don’t think we can take up these motions without Derek present.”

The Johnsons are accused of applying chemicals, including a substance designed for dissolving solid materials in septic systems, and adding spoiled and frozen potatoes to their stored crop in 2006. Portable heaters allegedly were used to heat the warehouse above 80 degrees and make the potatoes deteriorate faster.

Prosecutors say that once the potatoes rotted, the men reported the loss to their insurance company and said the crop was lost due to naturally caused diseases.

Aaron Johnson was convicted in 1995 of submitting a fraudulent disaster claim, after the government said he underreported the amount of potatoes he produced. Thomas, his attorney, said in court documents that the allegations in that case are “completely different” from the current charges.

Among other issues, the brothers want to exclude evidence that they failed to plant certified seed potatoes at the recommended rate. The government says it’s not illegal, but the fact they used less expensive seed provides insight into the alleged criminal conduct.

“Defendants are not charged with failure to follow good farming practices,” public defender Neil Fulton wrote in court documents. “Thus, evidence of planting rates is not relevant.”