SACRAMENTO — Before ordering Scott Salyer to spend six years in prison, a federal judge on Tuesday appeared perplexed how the former millionaire agribusiness owner ended up in the jam he confronted in a 15th-floor courtroom.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who gave Salyer until April 9 to surrender to prison officials, questioned why the 57-year-old threw away a Monterey-based farming empire that stretched from the San Joaquin Valley to New Zealand.
"Here's a millionaire who risked everything for nothing," the judge said before a packed courtroom.
On one side, there were Salyer's friends and family members, including his two daughters. On the other, attorneys and investigators involved in the case at hand and a welter of related bankruptcy and civil actions.
"I don't understand it," the judge said.
Salyer pleaded guilty in March 2012 to charges of racketeering and price-fixing stemming from a five-year investigation of practices in the processed-tomato arm of his company SK Foods.
Salyer and several other company executives and buyers for major food companies were accused of bribery, falsifying the quality of tomato paste and trying to fix prices with other sellers.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a prepared statement: "Scott Salyer used bribery and fraud to deceive his customers about SK Foods' products in order to maximize his profits. Over a period of years, he turned his company into a machine of corruption and economic crime.
The investigation was prompted by an SK Foods executive who admitted a $1 million embezzlement from another company and turned into a key informant against Salyer. The case broke open in April 2008 when federal agents searched Salyer's Pebble Beach home and several company offices.
As lower-level company officials cut deals with prosecutors, SK Foods went into bankruptcy in 2009 and Salyer began spending more time abroad.
He was arrested in February 2010 by FBI agents after flying into the country from France. He spent seven months in the Sacramento County Jail before he was able, with the help of family and friends, to post $6 million bail. Prosecutors said he was a flight risk.
Under the plea deal, the main issue on Tuesday for the judge was deciding between the defense's request for a four-year prison term and prosecutors wanting Salyer to serve seven years.
Salyer earlier agreed to forfeit $3.25 million he transferred between banks in Andorra and Liechtenstein.
The judge said he wasn't interested in hearing more evidence to support the prosecution's bid for a maximum prison term.
"We're going to dig a lot of ground before we plant anything," he said.
Defense attorney Elliot Peters said Salyer was misled by underlings, but his own "frat boy" arrogance and alcohol use played significantly in his downfall.
"In the old light of morning, it makes no sense," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal said Salyer displayed the same cavalier attitude for the rules throughout his business career and surrounded himself with "sycophants, toadies and yes-men."
Salyer, dressed in a dark suit, medium-blue shirt and green tie, exchanged tight smiles with supporters at times, but spoke quietly to the judge.
He said he wanted to make "a plain old, simple apology. I regret my behavior and take full responsibility for my conduct."
Salyer said he spent 10 years building a business but hurt thousands of dedicated employees, farmers and suppliers. Now, he said, he stands stripped of his business, pride and many longstanding relationships.
"My life is, in effect, over," he said. He said he was begging the court "to grant some leeway and grant me a second chance at life."
Salyer's right arm shook as he took his seat again at the defense table.
The judge, convinced Salyer's riches are gone beneath a wave of debts and claims, refused to impose a fine. He was inclined to let the matter of victims' restitution be sorted out in civil cases against Salyer.
"There is no question a significant fine would be appropriate," the judge said. "The guy is broke. ... There is no money to pay a fine."
Segal argued Salyer is seeking $52 million in Australian courts, and the prosecutor convinced the court to set a March 9 hearing on restitution.
Karlton, a senior judge with 33 years on the bench, said in most cases the idea of sending a message by imposing a stiff sentence is not realistic.
But he said Salyer's case was different because it involved so many people willing to corrupt a food system that the public must rely on. Salyer committed a serious crime, he said.
"The sentence has to reflect ... the law's willingness to say, 'No, this is the law.'"
Ten other defendants have pleaded guilty. Two have been sentenced and the remaining eight are scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 26.
After Salyer's release from prison, he will be on supervised parole for three years. The judge recommended he participate in an alcohol rehabilitation program. He said Salyer could serve his time in a satellite camp next to the federal prison in Lompoc, if there is space for him.
Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or email@example.com.