- MONTREAL - A Montreal-born
entrepreneur who sells meat substitutes by the tub and the former chief
of the Texas prison system go on trial this week in Houston on charges
of bribery, fraud, conspiracy and money laundering.
- The bizarre case features an all-star cast of characters,
including boxing legend Muhammad Ali and George Bush, the U.S.
- The trial, which began officially with jury selection
yesterday, centres on a US$33.7-million, five-year deal between James
Collins, the controversial former executive director of the Texas
of Criminal Justice, and VitaPro Foods Inc., a Montreal-based maker of
beef and chicken- flavoured soybean products for institutions, founded
by flamboyant entrepreneur, humanitarian and former musician and producer
Yank Barry. The state alleges Mr. Collins accepted at least US$20,000 from
Mr. Barry as a kickback to arrange the 1996 deal. Both men face the same
charges, and deny any wrongdoing.
- In 1994, prison officials in Texas began looking for
ways to cut costs out of the prison system and decided to add soy to the
- The state entered into a pilot US$62,000 deal with
founded in 1989 by Mr. Barry, a one-time lead singer for rock group The
Kingsmen, famous for the hit Louie Louie.
- Soon, state politicians were glowing about the prospects
for expanding the use of soybean products in the system, despite complaints
by inmates the product tasted awful and caused excessive gas.
- "That's too bad if they don't like it," George
W. Bush, then Texas governor, said at the time.
- "I have very little sympathy for them."
- Mr. Barry had a colourful past, including stints as a
producer for musical acts AC/DC, Tom Jones and Gary Bonds. He is a reformed
drug user, convicted extortionist and former professional sports
- Mr. Barry, 53, whose original name is Gerard Barry
(Yank is short for Yankel, his Yiddish name), got into the soy business
after buying the rights to the meat replacement formula during a trip to
South Africa for a golf tournament. He returned to Montreal and founded
two companies, VitaPro and Global Village Market, which sells the soya
products through a network of home-based distributors.
- Mr. Barry scored worldwide headlines and glowing mentions
after Muhammad Ali agreed to promote VitaPro in a series of trips around
the world to give away the product to starving children through his Global
Village Champions Foundation.
- "I've got a guy in my corner named Yank Barry,"
Mr. Ali says in a promotional note on VitaPro's Web site. "He's a
great man with a great product -- VitaPro -- a product that can help us
achieve our goals in a sane, sustainable way."
- Mr. Barry's private companies, which don't release sales
figures, claim to have donated 260 million meals to date.
- A year after the initial deal between VitaPro and Texas,
Mr. Collins negotiated a US$33.7-million, five-year extension that included
a scheme to buy VitaPro product, use Texan prison labour to repackage it,
then resell the meat replacement to other prison systems.
- But Mr. Collins resigned in 1995 after Mr. Bush called
for an investigation into his business dealings. At the time stories began
appearing that Mr. Collins had formed a private prison management company,
and his name appeared in a prospectus for a company owned by a business
associate touting his experience in the Texas prison system.
- After quitting his US$120,000 a year job, Mr. Collins
went to work for VitaPro as a consultant, earning $1,000 a day. Company
vice-president Jason Taite acknowledges the company engaged Mr. Collins'
services and paid him $20,000 to sell VitaPro products to other prison
- "Obviously no one knows how to cut through the red
tape better than the man who lived behind the tape for so many years,"
Mr. Taite said in an interview yesterday.
- But prosecutors will argue the deal was sealed before
Mr. Collins stepped down at the end of 1995. The trial will likely turn
on whether the jury believes claims by Mr. Collins and Mr. Barry that they
entered into the deal after Mr. Collins had left his government job.
- "He was paid $20,000 by cheque, not in a
Mr. Taite said. "He was not employed [by the state] otherwise we
have been able to hire him."
- Mr. Barry, who is now a resident of the Bahamas, was
in court and could not be reached for comment.
- The original deal has since been voided by Texas Supreme
Court, which in December, 1999, upheld a 1996 district court ruling that
the contract violated state purchasing procedures because it wasn't subject
to competitive bids. The Supreme Court also ruled the state didn't have
to pay anything beyond the US$3.3- million that had already changed
- Prison officials stopped serving VitaPro to prisoners
in mid- 1996, feeding the remaining product to hogs at the prison systems'
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