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Feds nail South Mountain Creamery for talking to City Paper

Photo: Frank hamilton, License: N/A

Frank hamilton

The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office targeted South Mountain Creamery, a staple of the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, for punishment after its owner talked to City Paper.


Randy Sowers is not the only Maryland farmer recently targeted by federal money-laundering investigators for illegally depositing cash his business earns in increments of $10,000 or less, in order to avoid triggering bank-reporting requirements. But Sowers, whose South Mountain Creamery (SMC) dairy farm in Middletown, near Frederick, is a popular fixture at Baltimore-area farmers markets, is the only one to exercise his First Amendment rights and talk to the press about it.

For that, Sowers’ lawyers say, the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO-MD) has made him pay—an assertion that U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein denies, despite an e-mail sent to Sowers’ attorney by the chief of Rosenstein’s asset forfeiture and money laundering section, Stefan Cassella, that appears to state exactly that.

As City Paper reported in April, nearly $70,000 of Sowers’ money was seized by federal law enforcers from his bank account in late February (“Cashed Out,” Mobtown Beat, Apr. 18), on suspicion that he had been illegally “structuring” deposits of cash from SMC’s farmers market business. City Paper reached Sowers by phone for the article, and he granted an interview—though his attorney, David Watt, said at the time that Sowers “probably shouldn’t have said anything,” since “we don’t want to act like we’re trying to influence the goings-on” in the case.

A day after the article was published with quotes from Sowers, the USAO-MD filed a civil-forfeiture lawsuit seeking to keep Sowers’ seized funds (The News Hole, Apr. 20). According to Watt, Cassella told him over the phone that day that he filed the lawsuit because Sowers talked to the press.

In an e-mail to CP, Watt paraphrases what he recalls Cassella saying: “Well, Dave, now I have a problem. Your client spoke to the press and now I have to file charges. Otherwise it will appear that I was influenced by your client speaking to the press. Also, I don’t want the next person who I file against to think that he/she can gain leverage by talking to the press.”

Prior to the article, Watt says working to resolve the case with Cassella had been a “relatively amiable process.” Afterward, Watt continues, the prosecutor changed his tune. Rather than engaging in what Watt says Cassella had previously described to him—a back-and-forth of offers and counteroffers over the amount of seized money the government would keep—Cassella instead said Watt “misunderstood” how the process would go, and gave a hard-and-fast, nonnegotiable figure of $29,500, saying, in essence, to take it or leave it.

Once the figure was agreed to in May, the parties negotiated in e-mails about the settlement language that would be filed in court to close the case. Watt and another attorney who is advising Sowers, Paul Kamenar, provided CP with the e-mail chain, which shows both sides jockeying for language that would limit their respective liabilities.

Ultimately, the e-mails show, Cassella had no objection to including a clause in which Sowers “admits no wrongdoing.” But he was steadfast in insisting that the agreement contain the following language: “the Government had reasonable cause to seize the defendant currency and to commence the action against the defendant property.”

Initially, Cassella said these words were “routine in forfeiture actions to protect the agents” who investigated the case from personal liability. Watt countered that in another structuring forfeiture filed last fall against money seized from Taylors Produce Stand, an Eastern Shore farming business, no such language appeared in the settlement agreement.

“I have a hard time explaining to my client why he is being treated differently,” Watt wrote, “especially where your initial concern was that the government agents not be liable for any claims for the seizure,” an issue Watt contended was addressed in another section of the agreement.

Cassella, in what Watt and Kamenar say was the last communication from Cassella in the matter, responded with one sentence: “Mr. Taylor did not give an interview to the press.”

CP shared the relevant e-mails with Rosenstein, asking for comment, and he e-mailed that if Watt and Kamenar “had any objection to the terms of the settlement,” they “should have raised it to my attention” before signing it. He also asked if Sowers and his attorneys “dispute” that “Sowers admitted that he ‘intentionally’ kept his cash deposits under $10,000 to avoid throwing up red flags.”

Kamenar says, “We were squeezed for time” by the time Cassella, on the same day the agreement was signed, revealed why he was insisting on language that was not in the Taylor agreement. He adds that, despite Sowers’ admission that he knowingly avoided red flags by depositing less than $10,000 at a time, “there was no intent by Randy to violate the structuring laws.”

Cassella, for his part, wrote in an e-mail to Rosenstein, which the USAO-MD shared with CP, that “the point is that the Sowers settlement was routine, not a punishment for exercising his First Amendment rights.”

“That’s an absolute falsehood,” says Kamenar, insisting that “this clause is not routine—see the Taylor settlement.” Cassella’s e-mail speaks for itself, Kamenar continues, and “you can’t put lipstick on that pig.”

“We’re not done with this, yet,” Kamenar says, adding that “Randy does not shy away from asserting his rights, and we think there should be more done to expose this kind of abuse.” Kamenar says he intends to send a letter to Rosenstein, demanding that there be “corrective action” in which Cassella is “disciplined” for the way Sowers’ case was handled.

“This is just another example of government overreach,” Kamenar continues, “this heavy-handed forfeiture going after people like the Sowers, and then penalizing them for talking to the press.”

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