Saccharin Maker Admits Illegal Contributions to Block Ban
NEW YORK (AP) _ Top officials of the company that makes Sweet ’N Low pleaded guilty Wednesday to funneling more than $200,000 in illegal contributions to political campaigns to try to head off a ban on saccharin, the sugar substitute’s key ingredient.
Among the recipients of the illegal largess were the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole in 1988 and George Bush in 1992, as well as campaigns by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., who ran for vice president in 1984.
There was no evidence that the lawmakers or anyone on their campaign staffs were aware the contributions were illegal, prosecutors said.
Top officials and contractors of Cumberland Packing Co., a Brooklyn-based business that makes Sweet ’N Low, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy, tax evasion, obstruction of justice and false-statement charges.
They admitted siphoning off about $2.9 million from Cumberland from 1985 to 1994 through a false invoicing scheme.
According to prosecutors, more than $224,000 of the money went to political candidates in a position to stave off a ban on saccharin. The Food and Drug Administration proposed banning the sweetener as a possible carcinogen in 1977, but Congress has repeatedly blocked a ban.
Other money went to improvements on the homes of company officials and friends, and for other personal uses, prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter said the defendants ``violated laws designed to limit the influence that corporations can exert on government officials through campaign contributions.
``It is hoped that this prosecution sends the message that the federal laws governing campaign contributions will be vigorously enforced,″ Carter said, adding that an investigation is continuing.
The court document said that Joseph Asaro, who as Cumberland’s plant manager dished out contracting jobs and who became the company’s vice president for governmental relations around 1984, was at the center of the scheme.
He had contractors and other associates make campaign contributions in their names, then reimbursed them with money from Cumberland through false invoices.
Asaro faces up to 20 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. He was allowed to remain free on $1 million bail and the others were free on their own recognizance pending sentencing June 23.
Also pleading guilty were Cumberland’s president and 49 percent owner, Marvin Eisenstadt; Asaro’s brother, Salvatore; and three other contractors, Alan Falcon, Gerard Petri and Eric Vitale.
Another Asaro brother, Frank, and another contractor, Amel Falcon, were to plead guilty at a later date, and a ninth man pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
According to the complaint, Cumberland officials evaded federal contribution limits and illegally gave $58,500 to D’Amato; $31,000 to Rep. Thomas Manton, D-N.Y.; $9,000 to the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign; $10,000 to Dole’s 1987 presidential bid; $10,000 to Bentsen; $30,000 to the late Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D.; and $9,000 to Ferraro’s 1992 Senate primary effort.
Ferraro said by telephone that her computer records listed $1,000 each from Joseph and Salvatore Asaro, but none from others named in the complaint. She said she once met Joseph Asaro through a mutual friend.
Manton said he knew Asaro only as ``an upstanding member of the business community and the Italo-American community.″ As for the contributions, he said, ``We’ll have to do a little homework, go through our records. Whatever funds we find to be tainted will be returned.″
No phone numbers were listed here or in Washington for the Bush-Quayle, Bentsen or Burdick committees. The latter two dated from 1986-87, the complaint said.
Cumberland agreed to pay a fine of $2 million, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Other defendants face one to 20 years in prison and substantial fines.