Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024

Behind the Scenes at Waterloo

As the state trial on child-labor violations prepared to open this week in Waterloo, Iowa, Sholom Mordechai entered the courtroom dressed in a suit, flashing a warm smile toward his family and friends. His bearing radiated faith and hope. It was impossible to detect any signs of the ordeal he had endured the week before in Black Hawk County prison. Sholom Mordechai has not spoken out about the incident. But a blistering letter to Sheriff Thompson by Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky of Iowa City, tells the story. The letter calls on Thompson to apologize to Sholom Mordechai for trampling on his religious and constitutional rights during a temporary incarceration there last week. Federal marshals had moved Sholom Mordechai to the Black Hawk County prison to have him closer to the Waterloo courthouse where his state trial is taking place. Although he had been assured that kosher food would be provided and accommodations would be made for his religious needs, upon his arrival he found just the opposite.

In a nightmarish replay of the outrageous treatment by Sioux City prison authorities after his federal trial, prison guards stripped Sholom Mordechai of his yarmulka and tzitzis. His tallis, tefillin, siddur and other seforim were confiscated. Although he repeatedly asked for his yarmulka and tzitzis to be returned, explaining that according to religious dictates, he could no walk more than a few feet without them, the guards adamantly refused.


Prison authorities claimed in court papers that since the inmate refused to walk, “staff had no choice but to carry Rubashkin around the jail before eventually providing his religious attire.”


But the Des Moines Register quoted family members as saying that Sholom Mordechai had told them that prison staff “dragged him on the floor about 40 feet to his cell.” Authorities refused to return his yarmulka and tzitzis for two hours, he said. 


Family members and Rabbi Blesofsky confirm that he was handcuffed and roughed up. “It’s inexcusable,” the rabbi told the Des Moines Register. “Before you rough someone up, make a few calls to find out his religious needs,” he said.


He said that his efforts to explain that Sholom Mordechai’s requests pertained to religious obligations fell on deaf ears. “The captain might overrule me, but I’m not going to allow [these items],” the lieutenant in charge of the booking process said. “They’re not coming into his cell.”


“I wasn’t even given a chance to cite the federal laws protecting the religious rights of inmates,” Rabbi Blesofsky told Yated in a phone interview. Unwilling to give up and go away, the rabbi suggested to the captain that he send Sholom Mordechai back to the Linn County jail where authorities accommodated his religious obligations.


“He’s not going to budge on the kosher food, he’s not going to budge on his religious needs. He knows he’s within his rights. You’ll have no end of trouble from him. Why do you need this hassle? Send him back to Linn County where they’re willing to accommodate him,” he urged.


To his surprise, Sholom Mordechai was in fact sent back to Linn County prison the next day. Sheriff Thompson later admitted to Blesofsky that he handled the matter incorrectly. “I failed in this case, I’ll admit that,” the sheriff told the rabbi.  


Sheriff Spins the Story


Thompson evidently regretted his moment of honesty and hastily backpedaled.  Blesofsky said he was shocked when, in an interview that same day with a local TV station, the sheriff completely twisted the story around. 


From the WHO TV news transcript:


“Sheriff Tony Thompson says he spent weeks preparing for Rubashkin’s stay, but that wasn’t good enough for Rubashkin.  Besides rejecting the so-called kosher food they gave him, Rubashkin’s “demands went on an on. He had to be carried everywhere he went because he refused to walk without his sacred undergarments.”


Thompson said he “refused to allow a chest full of robes [Sholom Mordechai’s tallis] and leather straps [teffilin] that were potentially dangerous.” He said he would not “kowtow” to this inmate’s demands.


As a prison chaplain who has made dozens of visits to jails on the East Coast and in eastern Iowa, Rabbi Blesofsky said this is the first time he has encountered so much resistance to religious requests. In a letter to Thompson, the rabbi registered his shock at the defamatory and untrue comments Thompson made publicly about the incident.


“As Chaplain to the Linn County Jail and Mr. Rubashkin’s rabbi, I was stunned to hear of your recent remarks made to a local television station concerning Mr. Rubashkin’s religious observances,” Blesofsky wrote.


There is no prison anywhere else in the United States where a Jewish inmate is denied the opportunity to wear a skull cap (“yarmulka”) and a fringed undergarment (“tzitzit”) or to don phylacteries in daily prayer,” the letter continued. “Denial of these fundamental non-threatening religious rights is patently illegal.”


The letter, a copy of which was sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, noted the additional injustice done to Sholom Mordechai by Thompson’s act of “publicly denigrating a Jewish inmate on television for seeking to exercise these fundamental rights, days before his trial is set to begin.”


“The poisoning of public opinion against a defendant’s right when the trial is about to start is no small matter,” Rabbi Blesofsky told Yated.


He said he had asked Sholom Mordechai’s attorneys to request a copy of the videotape that recorded the entire booking process, including the manner in which the prisoner was handcuffed and then dragged to an elevator and on to his maximum security dungeon-like cell, “for his own protection.”


A Charade-in-Progress


Sholom Mordechai is presently standing trial on misdemeanor charges of knowingly employing minors at AgriProcessors while he was a top executive at the plant. The trial’s proceedings, in its very first week, put on full display the government’s win-at-all-costs campaign. 


Setting the stage for this charade-in-progress were news reports about the state’s special grant of $35,000 to be used by the prosecutor’s office to fly in eight government witnesses from Guatemala.


The Des Moines Register called the grant “unusual,” noting the current “severe budget cuts in Iowa that have forced the government to eliminate many employee positions, and has forced many employees to take unpaid furloughs.”


Imagine: here is a state government so strapped for funds, it cannot pay its employees’ salaries. Yet tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money has gone to induce a handful of deported people to return to the Unites States to help the government carry out an agenda devoid of any benefit to the majority of Iowans.  


Such is the relentlessness of the action against Sholom Rubashkin that the child-labor trial has been allowed to trump any number of higher priorities on the state’s agenda.    


Why would flying in eight witnesses for the trial cost over $4300 per person, you’re probably wondering. But much more puzzling is this: Why would individuals who were dragged away in chains and incarcerated before being kicked out of the country, be willing to go out of their way to lend their services to anyone who treated them so callously?


Obviously, some hefty inducements have been offered to sweeten the deal. In addition to other bonuses, one of the inducements is a work permit or the coveted U-visa, a special legal arrangement enabling people who were abused at their workplace to qualify for a green card, leading to permanent residence in the United States.


Playing on the Imagery of the Workers as ‘Children’


As evidenced from trial testimony on the first two days in court, prosecutors are trying to prove that their witnesses fall into the “abused workers” category. They cite 16-hour work days, including shifts that last until the middle of the night, six days a week.


Prosecutors tried to play on the jury’s sympathies by referring to the workers as “children,” which conjured up disturbing imagery of very young boys and girls pressed into backbreaking labor by a cruel management.


On the job, the workers sliced beef carcasses in half with electric saws, ripped open the gizzards and pulled the feathers from chickens, the prosecutor noted. Those in the sanitation department sometimes became sick with the flu from exposure to chlorine and bleach used to kill E coli bacteria on the meat.


“This did not happen in a third-world country. It happened in Iowa,” the prosecutor fumed. “This man is guilty of the crimes he is charged with because we say, “Not in Iowa! Not here.” 


In opening statements to the court, defense attorney Montgomery Brown argued that Sholom Rubashkin had no way to know about or any reason to employ minors at his kosher meat plant. He said a vast array of forces converged against Agriprocessors — including the government, union organizers and the local Catholic Church — that made it impossible to conceal unlawful activities. 


The company was under such meticulous scrutiny, he said, there was no way to violate the law on the sly, even had the management wanted to. In addition, it’s been well established, said Brown, that the Rubashkin family and its lawyers knew a raid was imminent. On May 8, 2008, company attorneys sent a letter to the federal government volunteering to cooperate with its investigation.


“I want you to think about this simple proposition,” Brown said. “If Sholom Rubashkin knew there were any minors in the plant, would he not have told somebody to get them out of there before ICE arrived? Isn’t that what any reasonable person would have done?”


Postville Church Played a Harmful Role


Brown accused Postville’s Catholic Church, St. Bridget, whose ministers came to the trial in support of the Guatemalan witnesses, of not only coaching, but essentially blackmailing the Hispanic families caught up in the May 2008 raid on the plant.


“As much as it pains me to say it, this Catholic church was a long-term adversary of Agriprocessors,” said Brown. He cited the church’s method of coercing immigrants to badmouth the company; all those who told federal agents that they were mistreated by the company would continue receiving the church’s financial help.


“This was a mantra within the church’s walls,” said Brown. “Voice complaints and charges against AgriProcessors, give the government ammunition against Sholom Rubashkin, and you’ll be rewarded.”


Judging from the performance of the first two witnesses who testified (through a translator), they had been well coached. Yet contradictions in their testimony continually tripped them up.  


Father Encouraged Him to Hide True Age


Rony Capir, who gave his age as 20, said he obtained work at age 16 with false documents, and that his job was to cut meat six days a week, from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.


Besides a 12 minute break, he only stopped cutting meat when he sprayed down the conveyer belt with chlorine and bleach, he said. It made his eyes water and his throat scratchy. Capir pantomimed his dangerous work; thrusting a hook into an imaginary 40-pound rib with his left hand, and slashing at it with a knife.


Under cross-examination, the witnesses admitted that he wore protective equipment while he worked, such as a steel gown, steel-toed boots and a meal glove while slicing.


He also admitted that his father, who worked at AgriProcessors, had arranged for him to join him in Postville and obtain work at the plant. His testimony revealed a father’s schemes to get all the family members jobs at the meat plant, minors or not.


Brown: Who else from your family worked at AgriProcessors?

Capir: My uncle. My brothers and sisters.

Brown: Did you apply for the job voluntarily?

Capir: Yes.

Brown: Is it true you lied about your age to get the job?

Capir: Yes.

Brown: Did your father and uncle know that you lied?

Capir: Yes.

Brown: Did they approve of it? 

Capir: Yes. They wanted me to be able to work. 

Brown: At any time, could you have left the plant had you wanted to?

Capir: Yes.


Defense attorney Mark Weinhardt held up a government transcript that said Ordonez Capir told a government ICE official at the time of the raid that he did not know of any minors working at the plant. In another statement, Capir told investigators that USDA inspectors likely saw his [young-looking] face when they walked around the plant.


Confronted with these statements, Capir retreated into what appeared to be a well-rehearsed litany of one-line answers consisting of “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” and “I don’t remember.” Asked whether he had been coached by church ministers after the raid to make negative statements about AgriProcessor, he predictably “could not remember.”


“Child-Laborer” was Expecting Second Child


Here’s a glimpse into the courtroom as a second witnesses, Yesenia Cordero Mendoza, who gave her age as 18, took the stand. Mendoza said she was 16 when she dropped out of a Postville public school to start working at Agriprocessors, a few months before the raid. She said she took the job to support her daughter.


Asked to describe her job she said she worked with dry ice and disinfected meat thermometers with industrial cleaners, which caused her skin to peel.


On cross-examination, Mendoza tripped herself up in a web of lies and contradictions. She claimed not to remember being interviewed by a government agent at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville, in which she told agents she was over 18.


She admitted under cross-examination that she had lied about her age and presented false documents to work at Agriprocessors. The only people who knew her true age, she said, were her family.


Mendoza admitted that when she applied for work, she was five months pregnant with her second child. One could hear the unvoiced question hang in the courtroom: How surprising is it that no one suspected you of being a minor?   


Credibility up in Smoke


An even stronger question began to gnaw at observers watching this charade: What proof was there that any of the witnesses, with their past record of having lied their way into the country and into AgriProcessors, were now telling the truth about their age?


Perhaps none were minors while at Agri, and are only now pretending to have been under age in order to qualify for work permits or U-visas in this country! The first witness, Capir, admitted to being rewarded for his cooperation; he has been granted a work permit in exchange for testifying against Rubashkin, and has been working at an egg packaging plant in West Union for several months.


Isn’t it possible that Mendoza was telling the truth about her age to federal agents in 2008–that she was over 18, and is now pretending she was actually underage at the time? In this way she will qualify for the rewards the government is holding out to those who help them win the case.


One can pose the same question about all the witnesses. Who can say if any of them were truly underage at the time of the raid? None have a shred of credibility. Quite possibly, they are lying now for the same reasons they lied earlier about their legal status and produced false papers in order to get work. Given the incentives being offered by the government, who in their place would not do so?


Immigrants Used as Pawns


The records show that officials knew about many of the minors at AgriProcessors long before the raid, but refused to share this information with the company. A list was produced by investigators early in 2008, bearing the names and addresses of those deemed to be underage, former employees have testified. 


When the company’s management requested help in identifying these underage workers, however, they were ignored. State officials allowed these minors, about whom they are now so righteously indignant, to continue working in so-called dangerous circumstances until the government was ready to mount the raid.


How ironic. The horror of exposing children to allegedly abusive, life-threatening conditions failed to arouse anyone’s outrage or sympathy at the time. Why not? Could it be the minors were too useful as pawns in a broader scheme? 


Referring to the feeble evidence propping up the charges, defense attorney Brown summed up the strategy against Sholom Mordechai in his opening statements: “The state has no case. But they know how to build one. Shoot an arrow into this man’s chest, then paint around it and proclaim, “Bull’s eye!”



Save the Date

    Imagine that you’re a bear. On a certain crisp morning, you amble toward a certain river and position yourself at a certain spot

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated