Upper Leacock farmer Amos Miller, embroiled in a legal fight with the federal government over his failure to follow food safety laws and court orders, is now taking advice from extremists who don’t believe in government authority, according to his current attorney.
Miller, who owns Miller’s Organic Farm, wants to get rid of his attorney, Steven Lafuente, of Dallas, Texas. And Lafuente wants out, too.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with these sovereign citizen people at all,” Lafuente said Wednesday.
“Sovereign citizen” adherents believe in the legally baseless assertion that individuals, and not courts or lawmakers, can decide what laws to follow.
Believers contend “they are beyond the jurisdiction of the courts,” prosecutors wrote in court filings aimed at keeping Lafuente as Miller’s attorney. “(Courts) have found such positions to be frivolous.”
A phone message seeking comment left for Miller was not returned on Wednesday.
In early October, Miller faxed a hand-written letter to Lafuente stating that Prairie Star National would be representing him in ongoing litigation with the government.
“Please notify the (United States Department of Agriculture) that you will not represent our farm at this time,” Miller wrote.
Prairie Star’s website contains little information other than describing itself as “reclaiming freedom” and providing “financial services.”
Prosecutors want Lafuente to stay on the case, basically arguing that he’s serving his client’s interests by trying to keep Miller on track with court orders and helping to bring the farm into compliance with federal regulations.
A hearing on Lafuente’s status is scheduled for Friday before U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith.
Winning the court’s approval to drop Miller as a client won't be easy, Lafuente said. For one thing, businesses like Miller’s must be represented by attorneys in federal court, and Prairie Star is not a law firm, Lafuente said.
Other lawyers who’ve represented Miller have been able to drop their representation. “The problem is, I’m the last attorney standing,” Lafuente said.
In the past, Miller’s Organic Farm has held itself out as a private club that sold only to members and was exempt from federal regulations.
A transcript of a 2019 deposition included in court filings related to the withdrawal request show that Lafuente had convinced Miller he was wrong.
Lafuente said Miller is smart, but impressionable and has apparently fallen victim to erroneous thinking again.
Lafuente noted federal authorities have “bent over backwards” to help Miller and said he worries that Miller could face jail.
Miller’s ongoing troubles
Miller and his farm have been at odds with the government for years over federal food safety inspection regulations.
In June, Smith found Miller in contempt of a 2020 consent decree aimed at getting him and the farm to comply with food safety inspection laws. Smith also fined Miller $250,000.
But in documents filed Tuesday in federal court, the prosecutors said Miller has been slaughtering and selling meat and poultry in violation of Smith’s rulings.
In August, Smith even set aside the $250,000 fine he had imposed on Miller a month earlier. Smith wanted to give Miller and the government more time to work on compliance issues. Miller had complied with some issues, but claimed he was having trouble with others, including using a federally inspected slaughterhouse agreeable to him and the government.
Even as Smith set the fine aside, he expressed skepticism about Miller.
“I think [that] there is a real belief that he has been hiding what he’s been doing, that he has been, basically, trying to play a game with the government enforcers and that game can’t be allowed to continue,” Smith said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “They can’t allow it to continue, I can’t allow it to continue.”
Smith’s words are in documents prosecutors filed Tuesday asking the court to find Miller in further contempt, enforce the $250,000 fine, levy another $25,000-a-day fine for each day Miller is found to have illegally slaughtered poultry, plus order potentially thousands of dollars in other fines and costs.
According to the filing, just two days after the August hearing, the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service received an anonymous tip that led to further investigation.
Prosecutors claim that soon after being found in contempt, Miller came up with a scheme to illegally slaughter and process poultry under a different business name, Bird in Hand Meats, and at his farm adjacent to Miller’s Organic.
“That stunning disregard for the court’s orders and the law … demands consequences,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors on Wednesday declined comment. A hearing hasn’t been set on the government’s request for a contempt finding and fine.
Miller’s came to the attention of federal authorities in 2016, when the Food and Drug Administration said it identified Listeria in samples of Miller’s raw milk and found it to be genetically similar to the bacteria in two people who developed listeriosis — one of whom died — after consuming raw milk.
That led to the Food Safety and Inspection Service investigating and suing Miller’s over the meat and poultry issues in 2019.
The government’s latest claims
Among the government’s claims:
• Miller had beef and hogs slaughtered without government approval at another facility.
The facility is licensed, but Miller wasn’t allowed to slaughter without a plan approved by the government that also addressed how he was to inventory and sell thousands of pounds of the seized frozen meat and poultry.
• On Sept. 8, inspectors found an employee cutting up fresh poultry in a non-refrigerated semi trailer at Miller’s other farm, which is not licensed for that type of work.
• Inspectors also that day found thousands of pounds of meat and poultry in a refrigerated trailer on Miller’s main farm, but which lacked required inspection markings.
• Inspectors visited a trucking company in late October and found three pallets containing meat and poultry from Miller’s Organic that were to be shipped to Miami, Florida-based “My Healthy Food Club,” run by one of Miller’s distributors. None of the products had required inspection marks.
In asking for a hearing on the proposed fines, prosecutors wrote that Miller’s “... continuing failures and refusals to comply ... have flouted this court’s authority and the rule of law and have impaired and will continue to impair (federal regulators’) ability to fulfill their public health missions.”