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Win at all costs
Written by Bill Moushey Part 3 of 10

Insurance claim made farmer a federal target

November 24, 1998
By Bill Moushey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

James Catton helped farm 20,000 acres of land in central Illinois. In 1989, he filed a $250,000 crop insurance claim after a drought destroyed his seed corn crop.

Federal agriculture officials said he lied about the drought damage and charged him with trying to defraud the government, which could have resulted in a 20-year prison sentence.

A crop-estimating expert provided key testimony in Catton’s trial, saying a neighboring farm suffered no such drought damage.

It wasn’t until after Catton was convicted that he discovered the expert had never contacted the neighboring farm; he simply used yield information that a Department of Agriculture inspector had provided. Worse, Catton learned that the Agriculture Department had approved a crop insurance claim based on drought for that neighboring farm.

Prosecutors knew these facts but didn’t turn them over, as discovery rules require. "We thought this concealment [was] so material in a close case that, in conjunction with the prosecutor’s having in closing arguments misrepresented a key part of Catton’s testimony, it entitled Catton to a new trial," the court ruled.

So federal prosecutors tried Catton again. The jury deadlocked, 11-1, in favor of acquittal. Catton said that, in August, prosecutors pushed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge. He refused. Prosecutors say they will try him a third time.

In the meantime, he has lost his farm to bankruptcy.

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