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TribBlog: Gilbert: Staples Has "Blood on His Hands" [Updated]

The latest twist in the ag commissioner race: Democratic Challenger Hank Gilbert is accusing incumbent Todd Staples of killing nine people.

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Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has "blood on his hands," according to a stand-in for his Democratic challenger, Hank Gilbert.

Gilbert wasn’t able to make it to the Texas Democratic Party's convention this weekend (unfortunately, his mother passed away just before the event), but Houston state Rep. Senfronia Thompson delivered prepared remarks on his behalf. In them, the deaths of multiple people were laid directly as Staples' feet.

“
At least nine people died because Todd Staples didn't do his job,” said the remarks as prepared. “
Nine people across this nation lost their lives because he was too busy worrying about his political future to pay attention to what was going on in his own department.
”

That’s a reference to the nine people around the country whose deaths in 2008 and 2009 were attributed to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that caused more than 600 people to fall ill. The outbreak was tied to the Peanut Corporation of America, which also owned a processing plant in Plainview. That Plainview plant has been closed since 2009, when inspectors found that its products had been contaminated with salmonella during that same outbreak; they also found dead rodents and animal feces scattered around the plant. The findings at the plants prompted a product recall of historic proportions and an investigation by the Obama administration.

Gilbert believes Staples’ inspectors should have been more thorough and that his agency bears the blame for the deadly infections. The Plainview plant had registered with the Texas Department of Agriculture through its organic certification program and had not been inspected for four years prior to the salmonella outbreak.

“Absolutely those deaths are at the door of the Texas Department of Agriculture,” Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz charges. “They should have noticed those problems and they should have done something about it. Clearly they didn’t and Todd Staples is the one who needs to be held accountable for it.”

There's a hitch, though. The outbreak strain of salmonella was found in more than one location — first at a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga., and later in the Texas location. The Georgia plant, widely cited at the time as the source of the outbreak — was obviously outside the Texas Department of Agriculture's jurisdiction.

Even so, Leibowitz insists that “the final processing steps before the consumers ate most of the food happened in Plainview.”

The Staples campaign responds to Gilbert’s allegations by noting that he has had his own run-ins with the law, specifically a theft conviction in 2000. “His failure to tell the truth is well documented,” says Staples spokesman Cody McGregor. “Guilty Gilbert’s most current comment is false and pathetic.”

Update (3:34 p.m.):
The Gilbert campaign asked for clarification that the theft charge cited by the Staples camp was merely "a Class C misdemeanor for a hot check." It stemmed from accounting errors that occurred when Gilbert moved his cleaning business from Pittsburg to Whitehouse.

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