By Berel Jacobs
It is nearly a year and a half since the government’s immigration raid on the Agriprocessors Plant in Postville, IA. This started a chain reaction that eventually brought bankruptcy to the company, and the interruption of the Shechita in Postville, the effects of which have been felt all over the world. The tidal wave of problems that began in Postville was most strongly felt in the New York Metropolitan Area where the price of Glatt Kosher meat rose at least 25% in the wake of the raid.
Mr. Aaron Rubashkin, a survivor of the horrors of the Second World War and Stalin’s Gulags, made his way to America after the war and established a butcher store in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Through his hard work and determination, coupled with his Tzedakah and community activity, Mr. Rubashkin realized the importance and the need for a full-time Shechita to provide Glatt Kosher meat for the New York Metropolitan Area and other areas around the world.
He eventually came to the understanding that the best way this can be accomplished is by the establishment of a Frum, Chassidishe community in close proximity to the meat packing plant which would provide a home and community for the Shochtim, Mashgichim, families, Yeshivahs, Mikvahs, etc. All of that would be necessary to make such a plant operate efficiently and properly.
And so, about 22 years ago, Mr. Aaron Rubashkin and members of his family took over a defunct meat packing plant near Postville, IA and began the historic development, growth and expansion of Agriprocessors which was to become the largest Kosher meat producer in America.
Sholom Rubashkin, who then studied in Yeshiva, wanted very much to become a Shliach within the Chabad Shlichus movement and in fact served for a while in an out of town position. He was approached by his father who urged him to join together with several of his brothers in operating the plant in Postville.
Sholom Mordechai took this upon himself as a form of Shlichus and moved to Postville where he became involved in the operation of the plant. He held the position of Vice President, when the government cracked down on the immigration issues and then later on, claimed there was a problem with a bank loan. Sholom Rubashkin was picked to be their Korban and faced multiple charges stemming from a few alleged actions that the government claimed were not within conformance with standard banking rules.
During the months immediately following the immigration raid, the plant could not operate at full capacity and the Rubashkin’s put all of their fortune together to try to save the plant, investing millions of dollars of their personal wealth, mortgaging their homes, their properties, selling whatever liquid assets they had in order to invest that money to save the company.
They took large loans from their friends in order to put enough money together to keep the plant running under the difficult circumstances. Then the point came when there was no choice and the company had to file for bankruptcy. The family began working with the lawyers to protect them and to protect the interest of the company.
Because of the complicated aspect of the case, more than a half a dozen teams of lawyers had to be hired in order to cover every aspect of the case in the proper fashion. This naturally generated huge legal fees for various members of the family and for the corporate entity.
About a year ago, a group of friends and family members in New York got together with some of the respected members of the Crown Heights community in order to set up a Committee to raise funds for the Legal Defense of Sholom Rubashkin and the Rubashkin Company. This was at a point when they realized that the family assets had been completely depleted and it was necessary to actually turn to the public for Tzedakah in order to help the family pull through this terrible nightmare. The family, which for years had been a source of Tzedaka and generosity, now had to turn to others for help.
The issue of the charges then became very clouded. There were those who claimed that the government had picked the Rubashkin plant because of the pressure that they were under from PETA. Others said that there was pressure from Unions and then there were those who were sure that subconsciously there was an Anti-Semitic aspect involved in the case.
Historically, many meat packing factories in America have been raided by immigration officials. Usually, the undocumented workers were taken away and the plant continued to function. No criminal charges have been brought against the operators of the plant because it was obvious that these non-document workers had obtained false papers on their own and had presented themselves as properly documented workers in the United States, which was the same case exactly in the case of Agriprocessors.
I am sitting in the Federal Courthouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In fact, I am sitting near the reporter from the Wall Street Journal who spent two full days in Sioux Falls, following the case.
The busload of young men who came from New York to show their support for the Rubashkin family had settled in a very respectful and honorable fashion. The courtroom that was assigned to Judge Read by the Federal Courthouse only had three benches for spectators being that the main courtrooms of that court had been reserved for other cases that were being tried. The Judge had provided an overflow courtroom for all of these visitors and guests.
The local Des Moines papers and the Sioux Falls papers had reported very favorably about these young men who had come from New York. They reported how they sat very quietly and intently watching the proceedings on the screen in the overflow room. They had books of psalms and were reciting psalms and praying for their friend. They even passed around a hat for charity so that everyone would be participating in the act of Tzedakah while they were participating in the trial.
When the young men left the courthouse, it was always done in a respectful way, quietly walking through the streets to the hotel, the bus and the courthouse. Everything in the most Baale Batishe fashion, so that the citizens of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had a very fine impression of this group of young men who had come in support of the Rubashkin family.
The first day, which was Tuesday, was taken up completely in choosing the jury. The Judge had set aside two groups each with about 35 people to be the pool of Jurors from which the two lawyers would be able to choose Jurors. The questionnaire which had been filled out had been very thorough and the lawyers were able to study very carefully the various components that they felt would be important to be able to choose the proper jurors.
The prosecutor spoke to the pool of Jurors first. He explained the serious charges that the government was claiming against Mr. Rubashkin, including wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, bank fraud and so on. Actually this was the classic case where a few actions, allegedly claimed to be improper, fell into various categories so that the government had the opportunity to add so many different charges, meaning that each act included all of these various charges.
The lawyers made a strong case and tried to find those jurors that they felt would not fit into the jury.
When the defense lawyer spoke to the jurors he came across in a very warm friendly fashion, he was clearly creating a rapport with the potential jurors. He was able to speak with each one individually on a very personal level, so much so, that even when it came to hobbies or special interests that the jurors had, the lawyer was able to discuss these activities with them on a personal level. By the time he finished speaking to all of the jurors, it was clear that he had created a good rapport with the jury pool and that these jurors saw in him a person that they could view as an older brother or an uncle who was thoughtful about them and had a lot in common with them.
On Tuesday afternoon, the two legal teams sat down to make their choices of the juries and finally the jury was seated.
Wednesday morning the trial really started. After opening arguments, the prosecution presented several witnesses who testified that certain documents had been prepared improperly in order to cause the bank to lend more money to Agriprocessors. Of course, that in itself raises a question, being that there was no crime involved! The bank felt that there was enough equity and enough security to be able to lend more money to the company so that the company could operate.
Remember, the funds that the company got went primarily to pay for the payroll of a thousand workers. That payroll was an immense weekly payroll, the company did not use this money for any purposes other than paying their workers, paying their suppliers and making sure that the operation worked so that the animals would be shechted and the meat would be produced and sent on to the market.
During the two days of testimony, Wednesday and Thursday, every witness that the government brought to the stand, helped the government to make the case that certain documents allegedly were not proper. But when these witnesses were cross-examined by the defense attorneys it became clear to everybody in the courtroom that several of the points were very weak:
1. It was clear that several of the witnesses had “selective memories.” They could only remember those things which the government wanted them to say which might throw some bad light on the activities of the company.
2. On the other hand, those actions, activities or events which would support the defense of the company, somehow, for some reason, these witnesses could not remember. It was clear from the cross-examination that this selective memory indicated that they were simply not telling the truth.
3. Furthermore, it became clear that the computer system that the Agriprocessors used was terribly faulty. Many times it would crash for as long as 48 hours, during which time a lot of information had to be entered manually, based on memory and numbers that were submitted by the different people who worked in different parts of the plant and not based on actual counts, etc. So that even those documents which the government claimed were created and did not represent actual sales, clearly could have been created improperly by the computer and improperly dated, improperly marked, being that the computer was actually making up dates when it printed out various documents. This was proved several times during the testimony by certain documents which the defense selected from the pile of documents which the government presented.
4. Another point became very clear. Various witnesses made strong statements that Mr. Rubashkin was a good man, Mr. Rubashkin always cared about the people working in the plant, that the Rubbashkin family was known for their generosity and their Tzedakah, that in their operations in New York they had a restaurant which did not charge poor people. They were told of times when Mr. Rubashkin would call up clothing businesses and tell them to provide clothes for poor families and that they would pay for it. So the members of the Rubashkin family, in addition to running the business, also made sure that their business provided them with the opportunity to do unbelievable acts of Tzedakah.
By the time the testimony ended by the end of Thursday, it became clear that where the government thought that they had a “Slam Dunk” case and that they would be able to provide clear evidence to the jury that certain things had been done improperly, it was clear that:
1. There was a big question as to whether a “crime” had ever happened.
2. It was possible that this was simply a case of shlemazle operations in the offices of the Rubashkin plant.
3. There were still a lot of questions that had to be answered before anyone could come to any opinion as to what the intentions of the plant operators really were.
4. The bank had been very happy with all of these facts because even after the problem following the raid the bank went back and lent several million dollars to the company.
So clearly, the Rubashkin family’s promise was good as gold, clearly the Rubashkin’s credit was as good as gold and clearly the bank was very happy to do business with them. After all, the bank stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on these loans and they were actually taking about $100,000 a month on their loan. The bank was very close to doubling its investment with Agriprocessors.
On the other hand, the defense attorneys indicated that in the year of 2008 the bank had lost loans $275 million dollars other in bad loans, in the first 6 months of 2009 the bank had lost $175 million dollars in bad loans. None of those cases had ever come to any kind of a criminal case. Certainly the Rubashkins were being singled out here, for no good reason, in a case of a loan which had gone bad, just as dozens of other loans had gone bad, with the bank and there was no reason for any prosecution to be presented in the case of Agriprocessors and the Rubashkin family.
So taking everything together by the end of the week, the prosecution had presented a very unclear picture of what it was that they claimed the Rubashkins had done wrong, every single one of their witnesses had been discredited and clearly the onus was still upon the government to be able to bring any proof of any wrongdoings on the part of Agriprocessors and the Rubashkin family.
After the young men had returned to New York, Mr. Rubashkin’s family was present in the courtroom, sitting behind him in the spectator rows. There was also a group of other well-wishers and supporters of the family who were there, members of the Committee that had been established in Brooklyn were there to show their support and continue to confer with the lawyers and with Mr. Rubashkin. They try to give whatever support they could and certainly whatever financial support that the Committee had established was respected by the lawyers.
Please continue to daven for Shalom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivkah.
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