Johnson appeal of crop insurance fraud pending
FARGO, N.D. — It could be late June to late September before Aaron Scott Johnson of Northwood, N.D., finds out whether his appeal of crop insurance fraud is successful to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Oral arguments before the appeals court were scheduled for March 18 in St. Paul, Minn., but a week before were cancelled at the court’s option and the case taken under advisement for a written decision. Nicholas Chase, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the cancellation.
Neil Fulton, a Federal Public Defender based in Pierre, S.D., who supervises the case’s attorneys in Fargo, says it is “common to initially set arguments,” and later to cancel them. He says there is no time limit on the decision, but the Eighth Circuit often takes three to six months to do so.
Lynn Jordheim, a former first assistant U.S. attorney, says cancellation of the oral arguments could mean nothing, other than the court of appeals felt they could make a decision on the briefs.
Johnson and his brother, Derek Johnson, on March 9, 2015, both were convicted of intentionally harming their potatoes for crop insurance benefits. Aaron was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison for fraud, for making false statements to the government, and using the incident to claim crop insurance losses between 2002 and 2006. He argued that damage was from natural causes.
Release in 2017
Aaron, now 52, is scheduled for release Oct. 3, 2017, from the Federal Prison Camp at Duluth, Minn. Derek, 49, who had been living in Canada, did not appeal his 14-month conviction. He is scheduled to be released June 30, 2016.
In briefs for the appeal, public defender Sarah Yarney of Fargo argues the government’s witnesses against Aaron were inconsistent and unreliable, and the conviction was based on extremely limited, circumstantial evidence.
Yarney says Leo Borgen, a former hired hand who was a key witness, is a convicted felon who couldn’t be trusted by either the Johnsons or the government. The Johnsons fired Borgen, in part because of a sexual assault conviction, involving one of the farm’s younger male employees.
Yarney says, in 2006, potatoes that were central to the conviction could have been tested for Rid-X, a chemical sewage treatment compound, but that the government investigators “stalled on the testing (or at least attempting to test) until there were no longer potatoes to test.” She says Borgen was paid $1,200 as a government informant and was able to dismiss or avoid other charges in exchange for his cooperation. Further, she says the sentence by U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson unfairly enhanced his sentence.
Chase, meanwhile, in his briefs, argues Aaron “routinely and intentionally harmed his potato crops for insurance indemnities” and used chemicals, water, frozen potatoes and heat to damage stored potatoes and “was so proud of himself that he bragged/confessed to various people” that he’d done so.