COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – The lead investor in an egg-farm empire with a troubled history controlled day-to-day operations without state regulators’ knowledge, hiding behind the farmers with operating permits because he was labeled a “habitual violator” of environmental laws, state agriculture officials said Tuesday

Jack DeCoster, who has operated egg farms in Maine and Iowa, didn’t apply personally for permits to buy the state’s largest egg farm in 2004 because he knew it would be impossible to get them, the Ohio Agriculture Department said in a legal brief filed Monday.

The brief cites four violations of Iowa environmental law against DeCoster that resulted in $170,000 in fines.

DeCoster in 1996 was fined for health and safety violations at an egg farm near Turner, Maine. He later settled the case for $2 million.

The Agriculture Department in September announced it would revoke the permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs, which has had complaints about flies and manure smells from its hen barns.

The company has appealed the permit case and the department will make a final decision, likely by the end of the year, department spokesman Melanie Wilt said. Ohio Fresh Eggs has until Sept. 15 to respond to the agency’s accusations.

The permits list Orland Bethel and Don Hershey as the owners of Ohio Fresh Eggs. However, they put up just $10,000 while DeCoster has pumped $126 million into the four farms in central and northwest Ohio, according to testimony from hearings in June.

“The testimony and evidence has proved that Jack DeCoster is labeled a habitual violator of the environmental laws of the state of Iowa and is also associated with OFE,” the brief says.

Ohio Fresh Eggs spokesman Harry Palmer said DeCoster was an investor but acted as a “financier or bank” rather than an owner.

The former owner of the farms, Buckeye Egg, which opened in 1983, had a long history of clean-water law violations and complaints from neighbors about fly and rodent infestations associated with hen manure.

Ohio Fresh Eggs has about 4 million hens and produces more than 5 million eggs a day.

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