Meat-plant boss Rubashkin faces life after kosher fraud

By Paul Berger, April 29, 2010
Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of more than 80 counts of fraud relating to his kosher slaughterhouse

Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of more than 80 counts of fraud relating to his kosher slaughterhouse

The former CEO of America's largest kosher slaughterhouse was this week facing the prospect of life in prison.

A jail sentence was expected to be handed down on Thursday, drawing a line under a two-year drama that has shaken the kosher food industry and elevated ethics to a new level in the kosher world.

Prosecutors had demanded that Sholom Rubashkin, 51, be given a life sentence for a litany of financial crimes at kosher powerhouse Agriprocessors. The severity of the request, for white-collar crimes which have resulted in much shorter sentences in the past, stoked suspicion of antisemitism among his strictly Orthodox supporters and the ensuing row threatened to overshadow the crimes of which he was convicted.

Agriprocessors, based in Iowa, operated under a cloud of suspicion for years. In 2004, activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filmed abusive slaughter practices at the plant. In May 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security arrested almost 400 illegal immigrants in the largest immigration raid in US history.

Many alleged unsavoury conditions, including child labour and abusive managers, provoked soul-searching among American Jewry that kosher food standards needed to be raised.

His Orthodox supporters suspect antisemitism is behind the sentence request

Last year, America's Conservative movement launched an ethical certification programme that grades businesses on criteria such as worker's wages, safety and animal welfare. In the Orthodox world, the social justice group Uri L'Tzedek recently launched its Tav HaYosher seal, awarded to kosher restaurants that provide employees with a fair wage and working conditions.

"The immigration raid at Agriprocessors is going to be pointed to throughout Jewish history as a major turning point of awareness and the birth of social activism in kosher food consciousness," said Uri L'Tzedek founder and president Shmuly Yanklowitz.

However, the prospect of a life sentence for Rubashkin threw the spotlight back on the man himself, particularly amongst members of Lubavitch, the Chasidic group to which he belongs.

Last week, prominent lawyers, including two former US attorneys general, sent a letter to the judge protesting the severity of the requested sentence, while Alan Dershowitz said a "single digit sentence" would suffice. An online petition raised 32,000 signatures. Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, editor of Charedi weekly Yated Ne'eman, said he had raised $400,000 for Rubashkin's defence fund.

Even Mr Yanklowitz, a long-time critic of Agriprocessors, said the potential jail term seemed unduly harsh.

"My heart totally goes out to Sholom Rubashkin and his family," he said.

But others, particularly on some of the Orthodox blogs, were outraged at the campaign, urging community leaders to condemn Rubashkin instead.

Rubashkin was initially charged with 72 immigration violations. He then met with further charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and money laundering related to a $35 million line of credit he secured by inflating the value of his company. He was also charged with violating a law requiring him to pay livestock producers on time.

After Rubashkin was convicted of the financial charges last November, federal prosecutors dropped the immigration cases claiming that a second, costly prosecution was unnecessary.At the time, it was believed Rubashkin faced between 21 and 27 years in jail.

But in court papers, prosecutors asked for a life sentence, based not just on Rubashkin's convictions but also on allegations of a cover-up after the raid and on the huge number of victims.

Rubashkin's lawyers suggested six years was a more appropriate jail term.

Writing in Yated Ne'eman recently, Mr Lipschutz suggested that antisemitism lay at the heart of the prosecution.

"We have risen to unprecedented levels in this country and thought that here it would be different," he wrote. "Here we would always be accepted. In this land of opportunity, antisemitism wouldn't rear its ugly head so obviously. In this malchus shel chessed, [kingdom of kindness] we thought that we would forever be given a fair chance."

For Uri L'Tzedek's co-founder Mr Yanklowitz, it is all an unwelcome distraction from the issue that he feels ought to be agitating the Jewish community.

"There are hundreds of poor immigrants, mostly now back in Guatemala, whose lives have been harmed. They have been producing the kosher meat in this country for years. Yet there hasn't been nearly the same amount of energy and dollars from these segments of the community going to help them."

Last updated: 3:18pm, April 29 2010