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Trump and the Meat Tycoon: Backstory to a Commutation

After he served 8 years of a 27-year sentence for money laundering, kosher meatpacking executive Sholom Rubashkin had his sentence commuted.

On May 14, 2008, hundreds of officers from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swooped down on Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, with helicopters in the largest single-site raid in US history, arresting half of the eight-hundred-person workforce. Two hundred and ninety Guatemalans, ninety-three Mexicans, two Israelis, and four Ukrainians were marched off to a waiting phalanx of buses and vans and a makeshift detention center.

Initial charges against Agriprocessors’s employees included harboring illegal aliens, use of child labor, document fraud, identity theft, physical and sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, wage and hour violations, and shorting workers’ pay. According to the search warrant, one thousand discrepancies between worker names and social security numbers occurred in three years. There was even a methamphetamine production plant existing within the slaughterhouse, sanctioned by management. At the time Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator, weighed in on Agriprocessors. “They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers. It’s ridiculous,” he said during a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa.

Three hundred workers served federal prison sentences of five months for identity theft, and human resources managers and floor supervisors were convicted of felony charges of harboring illegal immigrants. Agriprocessors itself filed for bankruptcy. While thousands of child-labor charges were initially filed against Agriprocessors’s owner, Aaron Rubashkin; his son Sholom; and others, the charges were dropped as prosecutors unspooled elaborate financial wrongdoing at the plant, which they pursued instead.

In 2008, Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of eighty-six counts of federal-bank fraud in connection with loans to the company, including fabricating fake collateral for loans, ordering employees to create false invoices, and laundering millions through a secret bank account in the name of Torah Education, reported the New York Times. Sentencing documents also suggest the Postville mayor, Robert Penrod, may have received or extorted money from Agriprocessors to discourage unionizing at the plant.

The immigration raid was not Agriprocessors’ first troubles. In 2004, an undercover video showed cows very much alive after being “slaughtered” and having their throats cut, and it led to a USDA investigation that “reported many violations of animal cruelty laws at the plant,” says the New York Times. A year and a half after the cruelty video, the Forward paid a visit to Postville and reopened public scrutiny. Hundreds of semi-indentured immigrant employees were working ten- to twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, for $6.25 to $7 a hour, wrote the newspaper calling them “the impoverished humans who do the factory’s dirty work.”

Before the immigration raid, Agriprocessors had six Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations in one year, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints that supervisors extorted bribes from workers. Employees were untrained and unprotected from dangerous equipment, reported the Forward. Two workers required amputations in one month, and one was still working at the plant with a hand missing when the Forward visited, “hoping to collect enough to pay off his debts back home.”

After the immigration raid, prosecutors asked for a life sentence for the young Sholom Rubashkin, citing his lawlessness and lack of remorse, more than one dozen former US attorneys cried to the judge: Unfair! “We cannot fathom how truly sound and sensible sentencing rules could call for a life sentence—or anything close to it—for Mr. Rubashkin, a 51-year-old, first-time, nonviolent offender,” said a letter signed by former attorney generals Janet Reno, William Barr, Richard Thornburgh, Edwin Meese III, Ramsey Clark, and Nicholas Katzenbach.

Nonviolent if you leave out what happened to the workers and the animals at Agriprocessors.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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