By Rabbi Pesach Lerner
It was with a very sad heart that I received the news that the Judge had released her sentencing memorandum regarding Mr. Rubashkin on June 21, seeking a sentence of 27 years on charges of bank fraud. A sentence of 27 years is more than the prosecution had requested, more than six former U.S. attorney generals could ever imagine, it is in essence a life sentence. This is a travesty of justice, it is grotesque. We do not condone any acts that break the law, but we have a right to demand justice, an honest punishment, a fair punishment.
I share the following thoughts, thoughts that were written days ago, when the news was better. It was with a happy heart that I received the news that Sholom Rubashkin had been acquitted of all state child labor charges on June 7. I hope these words will keep our activities on behalf of Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin active and as the attorneys for Mr. Rubashkin file their appeal, we must speak out at every opportunity.
I have been quite involved in this case for the last two years, and thus followed the state trial proceedings very closely. I found that the testimony presented during the trial answered a lot of questions, but it also raised some new ones.
In September of 2008, the state of Iowa charged Sholom Rubashkin with 9,311 counts of child labor violations. With the announcement of these charges, the government added weight to the negative portrayal of Agriprocessors and the Rubashkins that was already being peddled by the Union, hostile organizations and various activists. The weight of the charges, and their new and ostensibly authoritative source, had serious repercussions for Agriprocessors. A public outcry ensued. Whatever other issues had been raised, these allegations of willfully endangering children were of a totally different magnitude.Post-media frenzy and prior to any federal or state charges, I organized a group of national rabbinic leaders to visit the plant and determine the veracity of the allegations being thrown at the Rubashkins. At the plant, we were given free rein. We could ask whatever we wanted from whomever we wanted. We met with workers, managers, the Rubashkins, the mayor, the Catholic priest and other community leaders. We even had conversation with the federal USDA agents who were always present on the slaughtering and cutting floors.
Did Sholom Rubashkin willfully employ or endanger minors? Was their plant an unsafe, medieval “jungle”? Were their workers provided adequate safety equipment? Were they paid properly? Were they paid for the hours they worked? These are very serious questions – questions with a moral and ethical urgency.
During our time in Postville we discovered many of the answers. With the completion of the state trial, the world has learned what we had already learned, and much more. The question directly addressed by the jury was: “Did Sholom Rubashkin willfully employ minors?”
Their answer – an emphatic and unequivocal: “No.”
The remaining allegations, although never brought before the jury to decide, were addressed by testimony provided throughout this case. In their attempt to bolster a weak case, the state prosecutors asked the former workers to describe the conditions under which they worked. So normal were their accounts that presiding
Judge Callahan commented at the end of one day that it sounded to him like a typical slaughterhouse.
Industrial refrigeration expert Rod Heston, who worked with Agriprocessors for over a decade and a half and works extensively throughout the food production industry, testified that the plant was a clean, modern facility, even going so far as to say it surpassed many of the plants of major national brands he worked with. He confirmed that the workforce at Agriprocessors was similar, in terms of ethnicity and age, to the workforce at all the plants he works with.
Wayne Hecker, a plant supervisor, as well as Gary Norris, the operations manager, testified that adequate safety equipment was always provided, and supervisors were authorized to augment the safety equipment if they felt it was necessary, and indeed did so. Manager Brian Griffith said under cross-examination that “there were 10 pounds of gear worn by each worker.”
The purchasing manager, Chaim Abrahams, testified that approximately $100,000 was spent a year on purchasing new safety equipment.
None of this surprised me. I, together with the other rabbis, had been there. We heard it with our own ears and saw it with our own eyes. The facility was an upscale, modern, clean and safe plant. But now you do not need to take our word for it: the jury has issued its verdict regarding minors.
We’ve heard the testimony – or rather did not hear the testimony- about many of the other allegations. But this trial has still left many of us with new, and perhaps, even more troubling questions. Why was there the very unusual treatment by the Iowa Attorney General? Why did the prosecution file the staggering number of 9,311 charges before their investigation was complete, before they had even filed a preliminary report? Who made the decision to charge first and ask questions only later?
As it turned out, the investigation did not turn up a single witness or source to validate the charges that Sholom Rubashkin willfully permitted the employment of minors at Agriprocessors. But the prosecution is not the only one to whom we must ask some difficult questions.
In this trial, which hinged on the employment of minors in a dangerous environment, we heard about a cold refrigerated plant, knives, dry ice and anti-bacterial chemicals. These are things every meat plant has. Where was the testimony of unsafe working conditions and physical abuse so widely promoted by the Unionand the social justice activists? Where is the evidence for the meth lab, explosive devices and weapons? Where is the evidence of Sholom Rubashkin hiring and abusing minors? Where is the evidence of exploitation for which they condemned a man, his family, his community and his business?
Where is the public apology of the Iowa Attorney General, the Union, and the various organizations and activists who forced this company into bankruptcy?
Where is their remorse for destroying the community of Postville, the reputation of Sholom Rubashkin and his family? Where is their remorse for the hatred they caused?
There are so many new questions. I believe Mr. Rubashkin deserves answers.