Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Sholom Rubashkin given 27 years for financial fraud, but escapes conviction on child labor abuses

Posted by Christopher Coen on June 22, 2010

An Iowa federal judge has announced a prison sentence of 27 years on financial fraud charges for Sholom Rubashkin, the 51-year-old Orthodox Jew and former manager of a kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors, where ICE agents arrested hundreds of illegal immigrant workers in a 2008 raid that brought national scrutiny.

Rubashkin was earlier found guilty of 86 counts of financial fraud. Check out previous coverage here and here. (Ten other members of Agriprocessors management or office staff were also convicted on federal charges in the wake of the immigration raid. Two others, Hosam Amara and Zeev Levi, are believed to have fled the country to avoid prosecution and are considered fugitives.)

The judge noted that Mr. Rubashkin had misled the bank repeatedly about the finances of Agriprocessors, moving cash secretly in a shell game among different accounts, including some supposedly set aside for religious purposes, and ordered employees to create fake invoices. The sneaky actions caused a loss to the bank of $26 million, the judge said. The judge also ordered Mr. Rubashkin to pay almost $27 million in restitution to the financial institutions and businesses he defrauded.

On June 8 Mr. Rubashkin was acquitted of charges that he allowed minors to work at his plant. Mr. Rubashkin’s lawyers denied the charges, saying that his firing of minors was proof that he didn’t want to employ kids. They said minors who did work for the company only did so by tricking the company with false identification documents. As well, the minors who testified acknowledged that they had used false documents and lied about their ages to get a job.

But beef production manager Brent Beebe told the court that Mr. Rubashkin gave him $4,500 to buy false documents for the workers, and required the employees to pay the back these “loans”. Yet, according to jury foreman and Waterloo City Council member Quentin Hart, there never was any “clear line of communication” between Sholom about him knowing that the 26 were underage (What does that mean? No proof in writing?)

The almost impossible task before prosecutors in the child labor laws violations case was to prove that Mr. Rubashkin “willfully” violated child labor laws. Of coarse common sense would tell anyone that a CEO and co-vice president of a plant would know what was going on for months and years at his facility, but prosecutors had to produce specific proof of his culpability, a threshold they were unfortunately not able to reach.

In the meantime, legislators unanimously voted to add more teeth to Iowa’s child labor statutes, and now the standard is negligence. Employers will now be responsibile for making a common-sense degree of inquiry into the age of their employees. All of that, however, is too late to help Mr. Rubashkin’s and his fellow miscreant’s Mexican and Guatemalan teenage victims.

It should also be noted that millions of dollars were raised and spent to defend Sholom Rubashkin. There was even a gold drive for Rubashkin, calling people to donate their gold for his defense fund. In the meantime the hundreds of exploited immigrant workers were left on their own to cover their legal fees.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), supposedly a group whose mission is to defend immigrants, instead threw their concern behind Rubashkin while saying almost nothing about the dozens of teenage immigrants who reported extreme abuse at Rubashkin’s Agriprocessors slaughterhouse — having to work 80-90 hour weeks, working with dangerous substances such as dry ice and chemicals, having to use dangerous power-driven saws and scissors, being struck by managers, and sexually assaulted.

In HIAS’ President and CEO Gideon Aronoff’s May 22, 2008 essay, ‘Postville a clarion call’, he wrote, “we cannot ignore that American workers are unwilling to meet businesses’ labor needs at prevailing wages.” Prevailing wages? Wages effected by an influx of millions of undocumented workers willing to work for just a few dollars? This case brought to light that, in fact, many of the immigrant workers were earning below minimum wage at Agriprocessors. Who is Mr. Aronoff defending?

HIAS, in protecting their own — demanding that Rubashkin be treated “fairly” — while saying almost nothing about the abuses inflicted on the underage immigrants I think has lost all credibility as an agency that the U.S. public can feel comfortable entrusting vulnerable refugees to.

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