The victory has special significance for him. The child-labor trial gave him a long-overdue opportunity to challenge a torrent of allegations that have demonized him in the public mind, eventually culminating in the military-style 2008 ICE raid on Agriprocessors and the destruction of the plant.
GOVERNMENT TRIES LAST-MINUTE PLEA BARGAIN
The vast majority of the allegations, concocted out of thin air, were wisely forgotten by the government when the trial opened last month. Even the original 9,311 counts of child-labor were reduced to a fraction of that number, but not before they were used as a tool by the Attorney General’s office to try to extract a confession from Sholom Mordechai.
The prosecutor offered him a plea bargain: plead guilty to just 30 counts and we’ll dismiss 9,270. Could he dare refuse? Hadn’t he seen and experienced enough to know the government gets its way?
Sholom Mordechai wouldn’t yield. “I won’t plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” he said through his lawyers. Realizing the absurdity of trying to prove almost a thousand fabricated child-labor charges, prosecutors hastily dropped over 9,200 of them – minutes before the trial began. With only 83, they might just have a chance.
JURY FOREMAN: NO WITNESS CREDIBILITY
The lack of evidence and witness credibility doomed the government’s case. Jury foreman Quentin Hart afterwards said that a major influence on the jurors’ deliberations was the testimony of the alleged child laborers.
“They all testified to lying about their ages to law enforcement officials, and presenting false documents to Agriprocessors,” he said. “It was hard to believe their testimony.”
In addition, the defense counsel had sowed doubt about the true ages of the alleged minors. “Seven of these witnesses were flown over from Guatemala,” Mark Weindhardt, Sholom Mordechai’s attorney, pointed out. “They were each given a passport. That’s proof of date of birth. Why hasn’t the State produced these passports to establish the ages of these witnesses?
“Instead, the jury is being asked to simply accept their word, when they’ve been shown to be practiced liars about their ages and identities.”
EVIDENCE DIDN’T HOLD UP
In an interview with a local Iowa paper, the jury foreman also said that the evidence never showed a clear line from Sholom Mordechai to the 26 alleged “children” named in the case.
Prosecutors failed to produce testimony from a single witness who had told investigators that Sholom Mordechai had been informed that minors worked in the plant, he said.
“You have a government investigation covering 2,700 pages… 17 boxes were seized during the raid… And they’ve had two years to come up with evidence that Sholom Rubashkin was told about children working in the plant. Where’s the witness? Where’s the evidence?” Mark Weinhardt asked the jury.
These questions apparently hit home.
In addition, evidence that the company fired some minors when they were discovered, and that some minors were turned away due to suspicions that they were underage, was compelling. That showed there were policies in place, said the jury foreman. “That helped sway the jury.”
Prosecutor Tom Miller, smarting from his defeat, tried to persuade the public that the jury’s verdict had missed the mark.
“In addition to child-labor laws violations…we presented abundant evidence to support the claim that there was extortion, physical abuse and forced labor committed against the workers at Agriprocessors,” Miller defended himself in a press release.
Abundant evidence? What trial was Tom Miller at? In the one we’re talking about, a single mention of physical abuse was made – against the government’s own key witness, Matt Derrick. Miller himself succeeded in barring this testimony from the jury.
As far as forced labor or extortion, not a single charge was brought up at the state trial. So much for the “abundant evidence.”
JUDGE TRIES TO SHORE UP GOVERNMENT’S IMAGE
Sholom Mordechai’s family members, while thrilled with the acquittal, expressed disappointment in Judge Callahan’s comments to the press after the verdict was announced.
Apparently aiming at quieting apprehensions that the government had wasted taxpayer money on a frivolous case, Callahan asserted the prosecution “was worth every penny,” since it drove home the message that “child-labor won’t be tolerated in Iowa.”
Many expected a different tone from the judge, who during the trial had raised doubt about the credibility of many of the government’s witnesses, particularly those who admitted to having lied about their identities and ages.
At one point, Callahan commented on the testimony of key government witness Matt Derrick, stating, “It has a funny smell.”
“I expected the judge to say that he believed justice was served with this verdict,” a family member said. “After dragging a person through the mud, putting him and his family through such an ordeal without any grounds…you’d think he would reprimand the prosecution for wasting so much time and money on a case no one found credible.”
Sholom Mordechai himself asked the most obvious question of all.
“The government knew who was guilty of sneaking minors into the plant,” he said in an interview with the Yated. “They knew that in almost every case, the minor’s parent who worked at Agriprocessors either got their child the phony birth certificate or vouched for their son or daughter being over 18.
“Instead of concocting a case against me, based on ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes,’ why didn’t the government focus on the parties they knew were responsible for putting minors into a slaughterhouse? Isn’t this a prime example of overzealous, selective prosecution?”
Defense attorney Montgomery Brown suggested that the State’s case was driven by hostility toward Sholom Mordechai as “the outsider.” He referenced a literary American classic, “Moby Dick,” in which a strange ferocious whale, proclaimed to be evil, is relentlessly hunted down by a sailor.
He called Sholom Mordechai “a stranger in a strange land, in which the state rushed to judgment against him. When problems arose, they rushed to the conclusion that he was responsible, this ‘white whale.’ They rushed to harpoon him – the stranger, a Moby Jew.”
Prosecutor Tom Miller reprimanded Brown for injecting religion into the trial. Almost in the same breath, Miller then turned around and proceeded to try to fuel an anti-Semitic reaction from the jury with his own closing remarks. He took a swipe against Sholom Mordechai for being indifferent to Hispanic minors while showing concern for Jewish youth.
He cited the testimony of a defense witness who testified that she accompanied her son when he applied for a job at Agriprocessors and that “Sholom turned him away because he was under 18.”
Conjuring up stereotypes of Jewish callousness toward non-Jews, Miller called it “less than coincidence that no minors from the yeshiva were employed at Agriprocessors. And yet, the 8th and 9th grade public school classes in Postville were a feeder to that plant.”
He insinuated that Sholom Mordechai was careful to endanger only Hispanic minors by permitting them to do adult work and exposing them to poison and dangerous machinery, while screening out Jewish minors who applied.
The jury, to its credit, didn’t buy it.
COLLUSION BETWEEN FOES
The child-labor trial, coming two years after the massive 2008 raid, put on display for the world the bankruptcy of the state’s trumped up case against Sholom Mordechai.
Equally important, it began to unveil the collusion between several hostile parties who made common cause with one another in order to promote a corrupt agenda: the destruction of Agriprocessers and the ruination of the Rubashkin family.
The story of how these forces came together to destroy not only a flourishing company and an entire family but the economic stability of an important region in Northeastern Iowa has yet to be told in full. While it lies outside the scope of a single article, an outline of this bitter saga is in order here.
Most of the accusations sprang from a systematic mudslinging campaign orchestrated by the powerful UFCW (workers union) with ample support from PETA, a Catholic church in Postville and the secular Jewish publishers of the Forward newspaper.
The Minneapolis-based Morris Allen, after secret talks with UFCW, fueled the flames, hoping to use the controversy to promote a new form of Conservative certification based not on halacha but the ethical treatment of workers.
Encouraging the smear campaign, ten Jewish congressmen repeated the outrageous and unfounded claims in a widely publicized letter to Agriprocessors’ management.
Iowa’s Governor Chet Culver played a vicious role in ratcheting up popular anger at Agriprocessors. Culver castigated the plant for inhumane treatment of workers and for “taking the low road” in running the plant under jungle-like conditions.
[Culver himself is now under investigation by a special prosecutor for accepting bribes of $25,000 for influencing the granting of licenses for gambling casinos. What was that about the low road, Governor Culver?]
The multi-pronged character assassination campaign took just a few years to achieve its desired end. A toxic stream of inflammatory news reports and op-eds poisoned Sholom Mordechai’s name and drove many fair-weather friends to desert him in his hour of need.
“Whereas the final judgment about [Sholom Mordechai] will be rendered in the courts, his trial in the media has already changed minds,” a 2008 Forward editorial proclaimed, no doubt proud of its own significant role in inciting the “media trial.”
So widespread has been the prejudice against him that even a broad section of the Orthodox Jewish community, who should have known better, were infected with it. Only recently, as disclosures emerge from both the sentencing hearing and the state trial, has there been an awakening to the truth. As hidden facts begin to surface, some of the hunters may become the hunted.
LYNCHING STILL IN PROGRESS
“This man is the face of Agriprocessors,” said prosecutor Laura Roan, jabbing her finger in Sholom Mordechai’s direction during closing arguments. Whatever violations occurred in the plant should be laid at his doorstep, she said.
However fallacious her argument, in one sense she was correct. The assault against Sholom Mordechai brought about the collapse of Agriprocessors, as if the two were indeed one. Yet, while Agriprocessors might be history, the government is not yet finished with Sholom Mordechai.
While the state trial has gone a long way in puncturing the libels surrounding the fall of Agriprocessors, the lynching of Sholom Mordechai by the federal government is still in process.
Attorney Nathan Lewin notes that “the verdict in the child-labor case raises serious questions about the validity of the federal bank fraud conviction, for which Sholom Mordechai is to be sentenced on June 22 by Judge Linda Reade.
“Sholom intends to appeal that conviction on various grounds,” says Lewin. “That includes Reade’s ruling that permitted federal prosecutors to introduce evidence about illegal immigrants working at the plant, while refusing to allow the defense to present evidence refuting it,” Lewin said.
“Sholom was irrefutably harmed during the federal trial by being falsely portrayed as responsible for the employment of illegal workers,” added attorney Guy Cook. “We believe this had a profound impact on the jury and tainted the federal trial.”
People familiar with the legal issues are convinced that had jurors been permitted to hear both sides of the issue, they would have determined that Sholom Mordechai was not responsible for the employment of illegal workers.
Those findings would have very likely changed the outcome of the federal trial.
While supporters rejoice with Sholom Mordechai and his family over his acquittal this week, awareness of the serious hurdles still facing him — and, in a deeper sense, all of us – are sobering. Whoever speaks to Sholom Mordechai says his faith sustains him. Let that knowledge inspire and rally us as well.