Howard Mora and Alan Buxbaum got caught selling choice beef as prime from their Brooklyn, NY, Stein Meat Products facility, which could have cost each of them 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
But after they each pleaded guilty to felony charges, U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto opted to hit them harder in the purse with fines and restitution with 5 years of supervised probation instead of prison time for their sentences.
Buxbaum and Mora each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, a Class C felony in the federal system. Matsumoto sentenced each of them to 5 years of probation with special conditions. Criminal monetary penalties imposed on each defendant included $88,400 for restitution, $20,000 in fines, and $100 of assessments.
Two New York restaurant groups, SSAP LLC and A&B Restaurant Group LLC, were awarded the restitution money by the court. Separately, the judge acknowledged that Buxbaum also paid a $125,000 forfeiture obligation that is also part of the judgment.
Mora and Buxbaum pleaded guilty to the sole count against them in September 2020. The special conditions of their probation basically amount to satisfying the court-imposed monetary penalties.
Mora, 68, and Buxbaum, 66, were supposed to be sentenced in January, but there were delays involving restitution.
By pleading guilty, the defendants acknowledged using counterfeit U.S. Department of Agriculture stamps to sell misbranded lower quality beef at inflated prices to consumers.
Mora and Buxbaum were originally indicted by a grand jury in September 2019. The defendants were each released on $250,000 appearance bonds with some restrictions on their travel. Judge Matsumoto granted most of 2020 for attorneys in the case to “engage in voluminous discovery” and plea negotiations, which the judge thought carried “a real chance of producing a resolution in the case short of trial.”
“Stein Meats, during the relevant time, was a wholesale meat processing and distribution business that purchased meat and poultry products in bulk from various distributors and processed those products to fill orders from customers, including multiple restaurants located in the New York City area,” according to court documents.
The fraudulent scheme
“Between approximately September 2011 and October 2014, the defendant(s) Howard Mora and Alan Buxbaum, together with others, agreed to execute a scheme to defraud their customers causing: Stein Meats to purchase choice grade carcasses and sides of beef that were then processed into wholesale products that were fraudulently sold to customers as consisting of prime grade beef,” according to the plea documents.
Stein customers were then charged more than the falsely labeled beef was worth. In furtherance of the fraud scheme, Mora and Buxbaum directed an employee to obtain counterfeit USDA grading stamps from a source in New Jersey.
Mora and Buxbaum also directed Stein Meat employees to shave off areas of carcasses where USDA inspectors had stamped “Choice” on the products and then replace them in other locations using “Prime” stamps.
The fraudulent activity occurred from September 2011 and October 2014, defrauding one or more customers. And it occurred within the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
According to the charges, the scheme was accomplished using wire communication. The government has also filed a notice of its intent to seek forfeiture of the proceeds from the offense.
According to USDA, beef is evaluated by highly skilled meat graders using a subjective characteristic assessment process and electronic instruments to measure meat characteristics. When there is no cheating, quality grades are a so-called language that is well understood in the beef industry, assisting in business transactions.
These characteristics follow the official grade standards developed, maintained, and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Beef is graded in two ways: quality grades for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.
Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling. Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than prime. Finally, “Select” beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades.
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