RUTLAND — A Rhode Island man who sold fake Vermont maple syrup on the Internet won’t go to jail, but he will pay restitution to his victims and serve two years of probation, a federal judge decided Tuesday.
Three years after Warwick, R.I., resident Bernard Coleman decided to substitute a mixture of water, sugar and maple flavoring in jugs labeled to contain Vermont’s sweetest export, he appeared in a federal courtroom in Rutland to face sentencing.
Coleman, 50, who told federal investigators he sold the fake maple syrup to boost his profit margin, faced a potential three-year jail sentence for violating interstate commerce laws, a charge he pleaded guilty to earlier this year.
But after Coleman apologized for his actions and federal prosecutors said they were only seeking a probationary sentence, Judge Christina Reiss on Tuesday imposed a non-jail sentence along with the order that he pay $240 in restitution.
While Coleman’s motives appeared profit driven — federal prosecutors have said in the past that the cane sugar he used cost 1/50th of what maple sugar costs — Assistant Federal Defender David McColgin said in pre-sentence filings that his client wasn’t driven by greed.
McColgin described Coleman’s actions as “an offense that was born out of ignorance and foolishness and not malice or unbridled greed.
“For most Vermonters, the wisdom of branding a product as Vermont maple syrup that is not, in fact, maple syrup (Vermont or otherwise) is obvious; the same cannot necessarily be said for those living outside of the state.”
In a statement included in the pre-sentence filing, Bernard apologized for his actions but didn’t explain them.
“I have learned a lot from this experience and would never sell maple syrup in any form that was not from a maple tree and would never use the word Vermont maple syrup without it being from Vermont. I am terribly sorry for this happening.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Masterson countered in her own pre-sentence filing that Coleman knew what he was doing when he advertised “Farm Fresh Vermont Maple Syrup” at prices of $40 for two half-gallon jugs of Grade B syrup.
The sale of the fraudulent syrup was “reckless and potentially dangerous,” prosecutors said, for anyone who may have a food allergy to the unlabeled ingredients.
And the federal prosecutor said the harm of masquerading under the Vermont label went well beyond the customers who put corn syrup on their pancakes.
“(Maple syrup) is a signature product for the state,” she said.
“It symbolizes Vermont’s beauty and its natural resources. ... The value of the product overall is diminished when rogue maple syrup, misbranded by its producers to deceive the public ... is introduced into interstate commerce. Not only are the purchasers of the actual false maple syrup victims in this situation, but the producers of genuine Vermont maple syrup are harmed because a bad batch of maple syrup will sour a consumer from buying more.”
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