By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton
Federal prosecutors today flatly rejected claims that the FBI conducted illegal searches during its years-long probe of tomato magnate Frederick Scott Salyer, saying that the reams of documents provided by an informant had been obtained legally.
In a filing made in U.S. District Court this morning, prosecutors ridiculed the notion presented by Salyer's defense attorneys that evidence against him was stolen and that Salyer's company handbook prohibits the release of internal information.
Salyer, facing the prospect of life in prison if convicted of racketeering, bribery and other charges, is the former head of SK Foods LP and was caught up in the federal probe with the considerable help one of his own vice presidents, Anthony Ray Manuel, who provided a mountain of company paper to the FBI prior to the execution of any search warrants.
Salyer's attorneys claim the case is fatally flawed because Manuel sought out inside information from company computers and files and turned it over to an FBI agent without any court-authorized warrants being obtained.
But the government said everything Manuel obtained was a document he had access to in the normal course of performing his job, and that case law makes it clear that he had the right to turn it over to investigators.
"This is not a trade secrets case," prosecutors wrote. "The defendant's claims that the Manuel documents were 'proprietary information, not to be copied and given to third parties absent court process' is irrelevant.
"He cannot incorporate the SK Foods employee handbook into the United States Constitution."
The filing is the latest in a continuing war of words between lawyers for the 54-year-old multimillionaire and federal prosecutors who say he rigged tomato prices and sold old and moldy products in one of the biggest fraud scandals in the history of the American food industry.
Salyer is in custody in the Sacramento County Jail and his attorney, Malcolm Segal, has mounted a fierce campaign to win his release on bail and to convince U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton that much of the government's case is built on information Manuel unlawfully handed over to an FBI agent.
Manuel, who was in charge of national sales for Salyer's company, secretly worked for the FBI for 18 months, sometimes wearing a wire, and delivered a bale of company records, including his own emails, to the agent.
Manuel became an informant in August 2006, after the FBI approached him while investigating an unrelated crime. In return for his help, he was allowed to defer a guilty plea and work off his prison time while still being paid $200,000 a year by Salyer, court documents filed by Segal state.
The defense says Manuel's help was provided illegally, and has portrayed the FBI case agent as heading a rogue operation to ensnare Salyer.
But federal prosecutors have defended the FBI's methods and said in today's filing that Manuel's position inside Salyer's company gave him access to a wide array of documents he had every right to copy and deliver to the agent.
"It appears to the Government that every Manuel document is one that Manuel had access to as part of his job," prosecutors wrote, adding that all of the emails he turned over came directly from his own inbox inside the company computer system.
They added that the FBI agent "admonished Manuel not to access information not otherwise available to him in the usual performance of his duties as a vice president of SK Foods."
The matter is set to be argued before Karlton at a hearing on Sept. 8. Meanwhile, Salyer's defense attorneys are continuing their efforts to win his release on bail, saying his health is suffering and that he cannot mount a defense while locked away.
The government contends he is almost sure to flee the country if released.
Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.
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