Jury deciding if North Dakota brothers intentionally ruined potatoes to swindle US government

FARGO, N.D. – The key witness against two North Dakota brothers accused of intentionally destroying potatoes to collect crop insurance payments is a convicted felon with no credibility, the men’s defence attorneys argued Thursday before jurors began deliberating whether they are guilty of defrauding the federal government out of about $2 million.

Aaron Johnson, 50, and Derek Johnson, 47, of the Cooperstown area, have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to receive illegal payments by intentionally damaging potatoes and giving false statements. Testimony in the trial lasted nearly two weeks.

Prosecutors said the brothers exploited the federal government’s crop insurance program, meant to help farmers recover from losses due to naturally occurring events, including bad weather and the wet breakdown of inner potatoes after harvest. Prosecutors say the brothers, among other things, added chemicals to accelerate deterioration.

“They looked for weaknesses in the system when the farmers who testified looked for faith in the system,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter told jurors, referring to farmers near the brothers who testified that they had good potatoes that did not spoil during the time the brothers were being reimbursed for their bad crops.

But the brothers’ attorneys told jurors that prosecutors have no hard evidence against their clients.

Defence attorneys in their closing arguments hammered away at the credibility of witness Leo Borgen, a former farmhand for the brothers who outlined what prosecutor Nick Chase called the “criminal circle” in the case that included Borgen and the two Johnsons. Borgen is serving prison time for sexually assaulting another man in 2009 and was also charged with lying to police.

Ben Thomas, Derek Johnson’s attorney, said Borgen “leveraged money and favours from the government,” including $1,200 for his testimony and a transfer from the state penitentiary in Bismarck to a jail in Jamestown.

“Does a convicted rapist deserve that kind of treatment?” Thomas asked.

Hochhalter said that while Borgen was “clearly not our top choice,” his testimony was backed up by other witnesses, some of whom heard Aaron Johnson brag about the alleged scheme. Defence attorneys said the claim that many people knew about the scam was typical small-town gossip with no truth.

The brothers are accused of adding spoiled and frozen potatoes to the stored crop and using portable heaters to warm the warehouse above 80 degrees, in attempt to make the potatoes deteriorate faster. The defendants, prosecutors say, found that the best way to wreck the crop was using Rid-X, a chemical that’s designed to dissolve solid materials in septic systems.

Prosecutors said Rid-X boxes were stacked next to the potatoes and said Aaron Johnson made one of the largest single purchases of Rid-X in any Menard’s store in North Dakota in 2006. Defence attorneys countered that there were several other large purchases of chemicals recorded at the store.

Richard Henderson, Aaron Johnson’s attorney, said the fact that authorities did no sampling or testing for Rid-X is “a hole big enough to drive a grain truck through.”

“That’s the real evidence that is missing.”