Miracle Gro Employee Faces 90-Day Sentence in Pesticide Scandal
Sad Story Points to a Larger Problem with Pesticide Registration
Standing by the company’s assertion that one employee acted alone in a multi-year pesticide scandal that helped bring unprecedented fines from the United States government, Miracle Gro’s director of public affairs sought to clarify the issue in a phone call today to the SafeLawns offices.
“There’s never been any evidence uncovered by anyone, not the federal investigators or the judge, that anyone other than Sheila Kendrick was responsible (for the mislabeling of pesticides),” said Miracle Gro’s Lance Latham, while acknowledging that some of the facts in the case are hard to believe. “Everything that you and others have said about Sheila are true in that she was a respected employee of the company. When word started to get around that she was responsible, many of us defended her at first. Her actions seemed so out of character.”
“A WONDERFUL PERSON”
A deaconess and current employee of the Kingdome Christian Center Church in Columbus, Ohio, Kendrick began working for Scotts in 1992. When the company was busted in 2008 for selling millions of dollars of mislabled pesticides — leading in part to the largest set of pesticide fines ($12.5 million) ever handed down by the federal government — Kendrick was soon fired and, earlier this year, offered up a guilty plea to avoid a trial in exchange for a 90-day prison sentence.
When the sentencing day came Friday, however, her friends, family and fellow church members and staffers couldn’t contain their emotions. This was not a woman who fit anyone’s criminal profile. Even her parole officer reportedly recommended a suspended sentence, with just a single day of jail time.
“Sheila is a wonderful person,” said her attorney David Axelrod, who spoke with SafeLawns today.
“Her job at our church will be waiting for her when she returns,” said the Reverend Lonnie Keene, who asked to judge to set aside any prison sentence based on his employee’s character.
The judge in the case didn’t budge and stuck to the 90-day plea bargain, noting that Kendrick could have faced up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine given the severity of the felony to which she admitted. Nearly $40 million worth of illegal products known as, among others, Miracle-Gro Shake ’n’ Feed with Weed Preventer All Purpose Plant Food and Turf Builder Plus 2 Max reportedly made it to the marketplace based on her falsified documentation.
“WIDESPREAD COMPANY NONCOMPLIANCE”
The EPA’s subsequent fines and rhetoric were stunning in a Sept. 7 press release.
“The misuse or mislabeling of pesticide products can cause serious illness in humans and be toxic to wildlife,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s sentence and unprecedented civil settlement hold Scotts accountable for widespread company noncompliance with pesticide laws.”
On that same day Scotts was also fined for the sales of millions of dollars worth of bird seed that was tainted with pesticides known to be toxic to birds. Kendrick was not implicated in that matter, but rather Scotts has said three other employees were collectively responsible.
“As the world’s largest marketer of residential use pesticides, Scotts has a special obligation to make certain that it observes the laws governing the sale and use of its products. For having failed to do so, Scotts has been sentenced to pay the largest fine in the history of FIFRA enforcement,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.
Citing a lack of any apparent financial or vindictive motive, many current and past employees at Miracle Gro still have a hard time believing that Kendrick knowingly misled the federal government — without the knowledge of a superior or anyone.
In court Friday, Kendrick’s attorney told the judge his client fell behind in her work and was too proud to ask for help. Falsifying the records was Kendrick’s way of dealing with the mountain of paperwork involved in pesticide registration.
“This is a woman who, for years, did her job very, very well,” said Axelrod. “She was too embarrassed to admit she couldn’t keep up.”
Latham said Miracle Gro denounces any suggestion that Kendrick might be part of a larger conspiracy or company culture, as SafeLawns and others have suggested in the past — or as the “widespread company noncompliance” comment from the EPA would indicate.
“We don’t have any problem in general with your blog; we know we have disagreements and we respect that,” said Latham during an amiable exchange. “But we frankly reject the misrepresentation of facts in this case as being anything other than one employee acting alone.”
Kendrick politely declined to speak to SafeLawns about the matter in a phone call in September. In court Friday, according to published reports, she wiped tears from her eyes and said, “I’m extremely remorseful and very sorry.”
PART OF A BROKEN SYSTEM?
It’s a sad story the company and its former employee both wish would go away — and there’s no joy to be had in invoking Sheila Kendrick’s name any further. Imagine the anguish of the last four years she has endured.
Yet the story needs to be told. Is Scotts Miracle Gro adequately staffing its pesticide registration department to meet its workload? Has it truly put procedures in place so no one in Sheila Kendrick’s position can falsify so many documents for so many years without anyone knowing?
Scotts Miracle Gro and the environmental community will probably always disagree about whether or not pesticides are ever really safe, labeled properly or not, but that’s not really the point here. The Kendrick case, the bird seed issue and numerous other company matters are making many folks question a pattern of Scotts Miracle Gro behavior. Is it, as the EPA says, a “widespread company noncompliance” issue?
“How can we trust you after this egregious breech of the public’s trust?,” wrote Gail Langellotto, a master gardener coordinator from Oregon State University in an open letter to Miracle Gro. “What should I tell the Master Gardeners that I teach? What should I tell the clients who come to us for objective, reliable advice? Until we can be sure that your products are reliable and legal, how can we in good conscience recommend them to our clients?”
They’re all fair questions.
In fairness to Scotts Miracle Gro, though, the company is just one, albeit large, part of a broken system that our federal government has maintained unfettered for years. Tens of thousands of pesticide product labels sift through the hands of overwhelmed state and federal regulators who barely have time to ink their rubber stamps, much less validate the documents.
“Herbicide Regulation Works on Trust, Not Verification,” read the headline in the Columbus, Ohio, newspaper when the Kendrick story first broke in April of 2008. In that article Matt Beal, chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s pesticide and fertilizer division, said his office doesn’t check U.S. EPA registration numbers. The state, like most others outside of New York and California, relies on companies to send in proper documentation.
“We have roughly about 13,000 pesticides registered in the state,” he said. “We have to register them each year.”
Many states only have one or two employees to monitor that task, just as Scotts only had one employee pushing through a pile of paperwork. In the Kendrick case, the products for which she admitted the forgery were eventually legally registered across the country. The company and the EPA both agree the products were safe when used as directed and no one was ever harmed — yet Miracle Gro and its pesticide manufacturers are the only ones supplying data to the EPA to support the registration in the first place.
So can they truly say with certainty that no one was harmed? Ever?
Of course not.
— Paul Tukey