Judge acquits VitaPro defendants

HOUSTON - A federal judge has acquitted a former Texas prisons chief and a Canadian businessman of running an illegal kickback scheme in the mid-1990s, tossing aside a jury's conviction of the pair more than four years ago. .

"This is well worth waiting for, as you can imagine," William White, who represented former Texas Department of Criminal Justice head James A. "Andy" Collins in the August 2001 trial in Houston, said Friday..

In an opinion supporting his decision issued late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said the government's case against Collins and Yank Barry, president of Montreal-based Vitapro Foods Inc., was too flimsy, particularly since the star witness was a convicted thief and tax cheat with no credibility..

If his decision to acquit the pair is overturned on appeal, "the defendants will receive a new trial. Justice requires it," Hughes said. .

Nancy Herrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston, said prosecutors were reviewing Hughes' decision and considering their options, including an appeal. Barry's lawyers, Kent Schaffer and Michael Ramsey, didn't immediately return calls for comment. .

In the case, jurors convicted Collins of taking at least $20,000 from VitaPro Foods in exchange for pushing through a five-year, $33.7 million contract to distribute a soy-based granular substance to Texas inmates to cut food costs. Barry was convicted of the same charges - bribery, money laundering and conspiracy - for allegedly paying the bribes..

Both Collins and Barry testified that they did nothing wrong in a legitimate, long-term business deal to save money on food costs for Texas prisons..

Both have been free on bond since the trial, with sentencing indefinitely delayed because an error-riddled trial transcript left no accurate record of the case. Hughes' ruling was in response to their three-year-old request for an acquittal or a new trial..

Patrick Graham, who Hughes dubbed "a convicted con artist and a freelance government agent," was critical to the government's case, testifying that Collins and Barry told him about their alleged scheme and solicited his advice in how to carry it out. He had earned commissions selling VitaPro to Louisiana prisons, and had solicited Collins' advice on construction plans for private prisons there..

The statements he claimed he heard were oral, and were not corroborated by other witnesses or documents. Hughes noted Graham had a deal with federal authorities in Louisiana that he wouldn't be prosecuted for crimes there and they would seek to reduce sentences for crimes in other states in exchange for his testimony in numerous cases..

"With this motivation, Graham conveniently knew all sorts of information about nefarious dealings in other districts," the judge said..

Collins was forced out as executive director of the TDCJ in December 1995 when Texas prison officials learned that, while still on the state's payroll, he had agreed to run a private prison venture in Louisiana upon his retirement - ostensibly using his position to secure another job..

The VitaPro scandal broke the next year. Inmates didn't like the soy-based meat substitute, and in December 1999, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the VitaPro contracts were invalid. VitaPro stockpiles eventually were fed to hogs at prison system farms.