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Former Prisons Chief, Viapro Exec Acquitted

September 10, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) _ A federal judge acquitted a former Texas prisons chief and a Canadian businessman accused of running a kickback scheme in the mid-1990s, tossing aside their 2001 conviction.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote that the government’s case against former Texas Department of Criminal Justice head James ``Andy″ Collins and Yank Barry, president of Montreal-based Vitapro Foods Inc., was too flimsy.

If the decision to acquit the pair is overturned on appeal, ``the defendants will receive a new trial. Justice requires it,″ Hughes wrote in the opinion released late Thursday.

Nancy Herrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, said prosecutors were considering their options.

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 men testified they did nothing wrong and said it was a legitimate business deal to save Texas prisons money.

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

``This is well worth waiting for, as you can imagine,″ William White, who represented Collins at trial, said Friday of the acquittal.

Patrick Graham, who Hughes described as ``a convicted con artist and a freelance government agent,″ had testified at trial that Collins and Barry told him about the alleged scheme and solicited his advice. He had earned commissions selling VitaPro to Louisiana prisons. No other witnesses or documents corroborated the claim.

Collins was forced out as executive director in 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.

The VitaPro scandal broke the next year. Inmates didn’t like the soy-based meat substitute. In 1999, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the VitaPro contracts were invalid.

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