Border Produce Scam May Spark Harmful Ripple Effect

James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, July 21, 2008

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Rafael Edmundo Melo Jr., 40, killed himself the day after appearing in federal court to face charges that he had allowed truckloads of vegetables and flowers infested with harmful pests to enter the United States from Mexico without proper fumigation.

While the death of the veteran plant inspector brought pain and sadness to his family, the conspiracy with which he and two other U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors were accused had the potential to cause further damage to the nation’s agricultural industry.

The scheme, which went on at least three years and ended when the defendants were arrested in April, could have decimated dozens of Texas agricultural industries, government and industry officials say. Some experts believe the effects of the tainted shipments could still harm crops.

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Melo and the two other USDA inspectors were also charged with filing fraudulent overtime payments, claiming they oversaw fumigations of infested shipments that were conducted improperly or never took place. Charges were also brought against the owner of a Laredo pest control company accused of improperly billing Mexican exporters for fumigation services.

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Prewett [Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in McAllen and executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association] noted that Mexico, which exports large amounts of limes and lemons, has confirmed that two insects known to introduce disease to citrus have been found in the country’s groves. South Texas is the home of a thriving grapefruit and orange industry that generates $80 million annually for growers and packers.

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The power of a pest

The full extent of the scheme has not been revealed. But a federal indictment cited seven shipments in January and March of more than 2.5 million floral cuttings and 28,000 pounds of raw broccoli that were improperly fumigated. When the charges were unsealed in a Laredo federal court in April, a prosecutor told the judge that cabbage and other foods were also involved.

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Plant shipments entering the country from Mexico at Laredo are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to the city’s five border stations and its airport, said CBP official Mucia Dovalina.

If a harmful pest is discovered by the CBP’s 55 agricultural specialists, the broker for the Mexican shipper is given the choice of returning the produce or paying to have it fumigated under USDA supervision. In cases where a particularly harmful pest is found, the entire shipment must be destroyed, Dovalina said.

In addition to fumigation costs, which average $600, the Mexican shipper must pay overtime charges for USDA inspectors. Such fees are common because many of the shipments reach the border after 4 p.m, when USDA inspectors typically go home for the day.

The CBP in Laredo maintains a list of 28 harmful pests and diseases that require the return, fumigation, or destruction of the plants that carry them.

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Two of the three defendants are awaiting sentencing by a federal judge. Earlier this month, Jose Homero Reyes, 48, a USDA inspector, pleaded guilty to three counts against him, including allowing infested agricultural products to enter the country in violation of the U.S. Plant Protection Act. Originally charged with 11 counts, Reyes is set to be sentenced in September and could face up to 15 years in prison.

Last month, Laredo resident Arturo Ramirez, the 46-year-old owner of Ambush Exterminators, pleaded guilty to six counts, including conspiring with others to improperly fumigate plants. Ramirez, originally charged with 19 counts, will also be sentenced in September and could face up to 30 years.

Former USDA inspector Robert Perez, a 35-year-old former USDA inspector, plans to fight the charges against him, his lawyer said. “We’re going to present our evidence in court and let the jury decide,” said his San Antonio lawyer, Albert M. Gutierrez.

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