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Pisgah National Forest is growing by 177 acres thanks to federal prosecutors' seizure of property from a Mills River farmer convicted of a massive crop insurance fraud in 2003.
“The acquisition of 177 acres of land connects approximately 100,000 acres of the Pisgah National Forest with a previously isolated 1,500 acres of national forest land. I want to thank the USDA and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy for partnering with my Office to make this transfer possible," U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose said in a news release. "As a result of this collaboration, the added acreage of national forest land ensures the protection of viable natural resources. It will also bring enjoyment to visitors for generations to come.”
The action resulted from the 2003 prosecution of Robert and Viki Warren, and others. In that case, the court sentenced the Warrens for their role in a massive crop insurance fraud. As a result of the fraud, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid millions of dollars to the conspirators for fraudulent crop damage claims by Warren Farms, including claims related to tomato damage. As part of the sentence, the Court ordered defendants to pay $9.15 million in restitution to USDA for its losses, as well as a $7.3 million forfeiture money judgment representing the proceeds of the fraud as agreed upon by the parties.
In and around 2015 and 2016, in an effort to collect on the forfeiture money judgment and restitution, law enforcement identified that the Warrens owned the Hoot Owl Tract under the name of a limited liability company known as Mountaintop Farms, LLC. Ultimately, through negotiations with defendants, the United States obtained an agreement for transfer of the land from defendants, through CMLC, to USDA, in partial satisfaction of restitution owed as a result of the fraud.
The so-called Hoot Owl Tract includes trout waters and tributaries to the Mills River, which supply drinking water to residents of Henderson and Buncombe counties. The deal reached in the criminal case to transfer the Hoot Owl Tract to USDA protects vital natural resources for this generation and beyond.
In making today’s announcement, the U.S. Rose commended the work of the U.S. Forest Service, and CMLC.
The Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office represented the United States in the forfeiture action. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Richard Edwards and Don Gast handled the criminal prosecution of the defendants.