Commissary customers at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, are still in limbo, as base officials await a court ruling regarding groceries that were seized during a dispute between an Italian national and his former employer, the Navy Exchange Service Command.
At the beginning of July, Italian national Carmelo Cocuzza visited the commissary with officers of the Italian legal system to enforce a court order to seize the groceries in order to sell them and recover what the court awarded him in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Navy Exchange. Cocuzza alleged he was illegally fired in 2000.
Although Cocuzza's legal action was against the Navy Exchange, he and officers of the court seized products at the commissary. Cocuzza didn't enter the Navy Exchange that day to seize merchandise because the exchange was closed when he went onto the base.
At the time the court order was carried out, commissary customer purchases were limited to fresh produce, meat and dairy. Customers have been allowed to buy groceries that arrived in the store after the seizure took place.
But things are far from normal. Cocuzza’s seized items are still in the store, and can’t be purchased. Meanwhile, there’s little room for incoming products that customers would be allowed to buy.
"The case at Sigonella is pretty bad," wrote one customer in an email to Military Times. "Most of the commissary is shut down because he hasn't gotten the items out of the commissary, and the management was being told they couldn't move his things to make room for items for our troops."
"This is absolute insanity……"
A court ruling on the case is expected within a few days, said Jeffrey Galvin, press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. A hearing was held July 19.
The commissary is owned by the Defense Commissary Agency — a separate entity from the Navy Exchange — and is funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Officials from the Defense Commissary Agency, Navy Exchange Service Command and the Defense Department declined to comment on the situation and referred all questions to the State Department. Officials with the departments of State, Justice and Defense have been trying to resolve the situation.
"The commissary has rearranged the front of the store, is receiving shipments and has substantially expanded their offerings," said Galvin. "Only the items that were identified by the bailiff are sequestered, so new shipments or items that were in the warehouse were not affected.
"They are also looking for a solution that will allow them to open up more shelf space for incoming products."
The commissary "will have more inventory available as it arrives on new grocery shipments and as the commissary staff are able to move it to the sales floor," wrote Sigonella base officials on the installation’s Facebook page on July 27. "The store is working on ordering a wide variety of items to meet the community’s needs."
Store officials are "making every effort" to order items in high demand and staple items, such as milk and bread, according to the post. But the time required for shipping items is also a factor. It currently takes one week for new orders to travel through the supply chain to Sicily, officials noted.
"We hope to be able to reopen the full store in the near future," officials stated.
Meanwhile base officials are taking steps to help affected community members. The Navy Exchange at Sigonella is working with commissary officials to identify items in high demand and get them stocked until the commissary can receive and sell them. The base master chief and officials at their Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society office are working with people who have individual needs.
One customer noted that commissary employees have been "absolute champions" during this situation, citing an instance in which the customer asked a commissary employee for a package of a particular pasta. "The employee went to the back as a new shipment was currently being unloaded. He returned [and] sought the help of a coworker, began rummaging for a box underneath about 20 others, and sure enough, I got my pasta!"
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.