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Texas Federal Judge Acquits VitaPro Defendants

by Matt Clarke

On April 22, 2008, Houston, Texas, federal judge Lynn Hughes acquitted former Texas prison chief James “Andy” Collins, 57, and former president and CEO of VitaPro Foods Yank Barry of federal charges for bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and misuse of a social security number. This ended the unsavory tale of alleged corruption in a $33 million sweetheart deal which had Texas paying more for the Canadian-made soy-based meat substitute than it did for Texas-raised beef and Texas prisoners being forced to consume the inedible product which allegedly caused numerous medical problems, including outbreaks of boils and vomiting.

Hughes delayed the jury trial, originally begun in August 2000, just before then Texas governor George Bush’s first presidential election, claiming he was shocked that the prosecution’s main witness, Patrick Graham, was a convicted felon. Graham’s conviction stemmed from prison procurement and construction corruption in his company, The M-Group, which employed Collins in 1996. In August 2001, the trial recommenced and the jury convicted Collins and Barry, but Hughes refused to sentence them. Instead, he decried problems with the court reporter’s transcription and granted continuance after continuance while allowing Collins and Barry to travel freely while on bond--even outside the U.S. [PLN, Nov. 2003, p. 12]. On September 9, 2005, Hughes acquitted Collins and Barry by judicial fiat, claiming Graham was “totally unbelievable” even though all the jurors believed him [PLN, July 2006, p. 34]. The Fifth Circuit overturned the acquittal, but affirmed Hugh’s alternate granting of a new trial.

Hughes finally got his way after a new U.S. Attorney agreed to a second trial without a jury, witnesses or the possibility of appeal. The “trial” lasted two hours, after which Hughes announced that the government had failed to prove its case, faulting its reliance on Graham’s testimony.

Collins estimates his legal expenses at $200,000 and blames the breakup of his second marriage on his prosecution.

“My wife literally had her life on hold for several years, and it finally took its toll. She had every right to move on,” said Collins.

Collins now plans to work in the private prison business of Charles Terrell, former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. He claims to be a bit haunted by the 45 to 50 executions he estimates occurred under his watch as head of the Texas prison system.

“After seeing the process from this side, at times I wonder how many of those people I executed weren’t fortunate enough to have a judge who understood fairness and equity,” he said.

While executing the prisoners, Collins had no doubt about their guilt.

“Now I don’t know,” he said, noting the release of 17 prisoners exonerated by DNA testing from Dallas County alone. But Collins is quick to shift the blame for the wrongly convicted, saying that prison officials are “powerless” to correct the mistakes of prosecutors and judges. He carefully avoids the fact that prison officials in Texas make it difficult for the wrongly convicted to get relief in the courts by giving prisoners very limited access to poorly equipped law libraries.

Collins has also come to question the policies of longer sentences which led Texas into a massive prison buildup during his watch.

“I don’t think it was good public policy,” he said.

Well, neither was VitaPro is the unanimous opinion of Texas prisoners.

Source: Houston Chronicle,

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