Co-owner of Jeppi Nut Co. pleads guilty to hiding rodent infestation

Pavlos could face 5 years in jail, up to $250,000 fine

October 09, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

It was a shell game in more ways than one.

A co-owner of the Jeppi Nut Co., a Baltimore institution whose snack business dates to 1884, pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of obstruction of justice for concealing a rodent-infested food plant from federal inspectors during the past 18 months.

Theodore Pavlos, 53, could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, said the U.S. attorney's office.

In March, the business moved from Baltimore, just east of downtown, to Timonium in Baltimore County - a move that the owners have said will fix the problems uncovered by Food and Drug Administration agents.

Pavlos "admitted today that he had made a mistake in compliance, he has moved the location of his operation, and he is in full compliance of FDA rules and regulations now and is getting high marks from the FDA," said attorney David B. Irwin of Irwin Green & Dexter LLP. He said the business has a clean bill of health from the federal agency.

Irwin said Pavlos' fine is likely to be far less than $250,000, and the two sides have agreed that the appropriate federal guidelines recommendation would be a sentence of six to 12 months. Irwin said that time could be served by home detention rather than in jail.

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 20.

Pavlos could not be reached for comment.

As part of a routine inspection, FDA employees visited Jeppi Nut on North High Street in April of last year. They found what they described as unsanitary conditions, including live and dead rodents, gnawed bags of food and signs of rodent nesting.

When questioned by the agents, Pavlos denied operating from a nearby building on Low Street, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The FDA later received a tip from an employee that Jeppi Nut was manufacturing and storing food at that location.

The agents returned months later to ask Pavlos about it again. He maintained his denial and offered to have an employee escort inspectors through the building, the U.S. attorney's office said. As the FDA waited for the employee, however, Pavlos disappeared, and the inspectors were unable to get into the building that day.

About 9 that night, an FDA inspector drove past Jeppi Nut and saw workers moving items out of the second building and into a nearby garage. When inspectors returned the next morning and got into the building, they found a peanut-frying machine and other evidence that it had been used recently to process and package food, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The inspectors said that building and the nearby garage, which contained a stock of Jeppi Nut food and packaging materials, were unsanitary. Rodents and insects had ruined the food.

In 1884, four Jeppi brothers began the business by selling fruit and vegetables from a stall at the old Hanover Market on Sharp and Camden streets.

It operated from 223 Sharp St. beginning in the early 1900s. During the 1930s, a-rabs, who sold produce from horse-drawn carts, would buy 100-pound bags of Jeppi's roasted peanuts and sell quarts of them for a nickel. The area around the business was razed in the 1970s to make room for the Baltimore Convention Center. Jeppi Nut moved into the North High Street building in 1974.

One employee estimated late last year that Jeppi roasted 2,000 pounds of peanuts a day.

"They've made their peace with the FDA," Irwin said. Pavlos' "new business is up and running and doing well."

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