by Tim Bross and Margaret Cronin Fisk
Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. settled in mid-trial a lawsuit claiming the company directed a Ponzi scheme by a former dealer who defrauded Missouri farmers.
Missouri Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison announced the settlement to jurors in St. Louis Thursday. The terms weren’t disclosed.
“As part of the settlement agreement, ADM does not admit any wrongdoing,” Jackie Anderson, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “The settlement is confidential and parties have agreed they will not disclose details of the agreement.”
“This case was filed in 2011, and it was a long hard struggle,” Grant L. Davis, lead attorney for the farmers, said Thursday. “We are happy the farmers have been offered a resolution to this case."
The lawsuit centered on ADM’s alleged role in the theft of $27.4 million by dealer Cathy Gieseker from Missouri farmers. Gieseker, now serving a nine-year prison sentence, reneged on paying for corn and soybeans she sold, mainly to ADM. The farmers alleged Gieseker acted as an agent of ADM.
ADM, the world’s biggest corn processor, denied the allegations. The company had been investigated by multiple agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department and the Missouri attorney general’s office, and no wrongdoing was found, Lori Cohen, an ADM lawyer, told jurors Tuesday. “ADM is blamed for a crime committed by somebody else,’’ she said.
The settlement comes before farmers’ lawyers were set to introduce in trial recorded testimony from Gieseker in which she implicated the company. In the testimony, lawyers said in court filings, she “testified that ADM instructed her and directed all her activities that involved the grain fraud.’’
Gieseker is a habitual liar and isn’t reliable, Cohen told jurors.
The trial covered the losses of four farmers and was the first of multiple trials scheduled over allegations ADM was liable for Gieseker’s fraud. The settlement will also resolve the claims of the rest of about 160 farmers who sued.
Geiseker paid some farmers with money from subsequent sales of other customers’ grain, making the decade-long fraud a Ponzi scheme, according to prosecutors.
Gieseker was ordered to pay $27 million, according to a plea agreement. Federal authorities have turned over about $1.4 million to the farmers from her seized assets and her payments.
The settlement was reached hours after testimony Wednesday from an ADM attorney, Cynthia Ervin, who was involved in the company’s internal investigation.
Shawn Foster, an attorney for the farmers, pressed Ervin on ADM’s response to an April 2008 e-mail from a company employee to managers in which the worker said it appeared Gieseker had "backing" from ADM.
Ervin denied that was true. Foster repeatedly asked her if she had notes on her investigation. She replied, "Either I didn’t take notes, or I don’t have them."
Of seven jurors interviewed after the settlement was announced, four said they had not begun to form an opinion on a verdict, while three said they were leaning toward the farmers.
Two of those three said they were struck by the lack of notes from Ervin.
“The plaintiffs won yesterday,” juror Mark Favazza, 36, a St. Louis restaurateur, said, citing Ervin’s testimony.
Emily Hileman,41, of St. Louis, agreed. "It seemed odd that the attorney did not have any notes or records," she said.
The case is Benskin v. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., 1122-cc00556, Circuit Court, St. Louis City, Missouri.
Updates with ADM comment in third paragraph.
To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Schneider at [email protected]
Peter Blumberg, Andrew Martin
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