Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

Rubashkin Acquittal: Behind the Smoke and Mirrors

The dramatic vindication of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin in the state child-labor trial last week has wreaked havoc with the public's view of him. Given his media-battered reputation, no one expected him to be acquitted of the state charges. Bias against him, especially in Iowa, was rampant. Many described their shocked reaction to the verdict. The government had promised that they had a solid case and there was no reason to doubt it. The public had long been convinced that Sholom Mordechai presided over a crime-ridden plant where, in addition to minors being forced to work with dangerous chemicals and machinery, workers were subjected to forced labor and other outrages. Yet, the jury tossed out every single one of child-labor charges, finding no credence in the government's case. The sweeping verdict confirmed that the public has been grossly misled. One is reminded of how the disastrous 2008 ICE raid itself grew out of lurid charges that later evaporated into thin air. Remember how Agriprocessors was said to house a meth lab, an extortion ring, and a hideout where bombs and explosive devices were sold? After exploiting these wild claims in a federal affidavit to justify a blitzkrieg-like raid on the plant, the government never brought them up again. Like a cyclone that wrecks everything in its path, the affidavit's grotesque claims paved the way for an onslaught against Agriprocessors that inflicted massive damage against the entire economic region. The meth lab/weapons stockpiling/extortion ring claims then vanished from the radar screen.



Vicious overkill by the federal government apparently inspired state officials to follow suit. Witness the grandiose action in the 9,311 child-labor counts that threw Sholom Mordechai on the ropes, before the charges mysteriously melted away on the eve of the state trial.


In this long, ugly saga full of smoke and mirrors, it’s becoming increasingly apparent 

who the real fraudsters are: federal and state officials who have disgraced their office  by their rampant abuse of power.  


How heartening that in such a climate of obfuscation, a jury in the state trial found the moral courage to decide the child-labor case based on its merits. Perhaps jurors smelled something funny about the government’s disappearing-ink trick, with an astounding number of charges being wiped off the chart without explanation. Perhaps they sensed the dishonesty behind the prosecutors’ moral posturing.  


Whatever factors most influenced their decision, the verdict signified an unwillingness to rubberstamp a shabby case clearly driven by an agenda other than justice. It filled Sholom Mordechai and his family and supporters with hope that his bitter ordeal is finally turning the corner.




With Judge Reade set to hand down the federal sentence on June 22, a wave of urgency has gripped the community. A recent asifa at the Atrium in Monsey, NY, last week drew about 15,000 people – 3,000 who attended in person and over 10,000 who participated via teleconference on the Chazak Hotline and the Kol Mevaser News Hotline.


The event began at nine in the evening and continued past midnight in an outpouring of tefillah and achdus. A host of speakers intimately familiar with the case outlined it for the audience and shared the most recent developments.


From Mr. Yerachmiel Simmins, a lawyer of note, thousands of people learned for the first time how the wrenching Rubashkin saga began and the ruthless tactics used by PETA and the unions to demonize Agriprocessors and incite the federal government against the plant.


“So many elements of this case shake the foundations of fairness and fundamental rights embedded in the American constitution,” Mr. Simmins told his listeners. He went on to describe the trampling of civil liberties and the betrayal of the principles of democracy by unscrupulous government officials.




Even those informed about the case were shocked to discover the extent of the abuse of power on both the federal and state levels.   


The audience learned how, discovering that Agriprocessors had correct policies in place to screen out illegal aliens, government officials nevertheless concocted a twisted scheme to frame Sholom Mordechai for knowingly hiring and harboring them. They learned how officials unlawfully stripped Sholom Mordechai of his business, livelihood and assets so that he could not fund his own defense.


They discovered the story behind the “myth of the $26 million,” which was used as the basis for the government’s recommended life sentence. This myth – the falsified claim that Sholom Mordechai had caused a lender bank $26 million in losses – was exposed at the sentencing hearing in April.




Witnesses disclosed that prosecutors had invoked what has been called the “No-Rubashkin Edict” to intimidate buyers from purchasing the post-bankruptcy Agriprocessors when it was still a valuable, going concern, valued at more than $80 million. Prosecutors threatened forfeiture of all of the assets of the company if any relatives of Sholom Mordechai were involved in the purchase or management of the plant.


This intimidation worked, forcing bidders to drop out until the company was so devalued that it was sold for a tiny fraction of its worth, rendering it impossible for the bank to recover its collateral.


Government officials who had directly precipitated the bank’s massive loss of money then laid it at Sholom Mordechai’s doorstep, charging him in court papers with orchestrating a massive fraud of $26 million.


Mr. Simmins drove home the disturbing reality of justice run amok. “The law in this case is being used not to uphold the social order, but to destroy a town; not to defend religious freedom, but to lock up a true yirei Shomayim for close to life, chas veshalom. This is less a case than an actual lynching…of one of acheinu bnei Yisroel.”




The audience in Monsey heard some of the fascinating details behind Sholom Mordechai’s dramatic acquittal in the recent child-labor trial from one of the defense attorneys, Mr. Mark Weinhardt, who traveled from Iowa to participate in the gathering.


Weinhardt shared some riveting inside glimpses in a case marked by the daunting frustrations and challenges of battling the government, and a case that carried such high stakes for his client.


He recounted that at crucial moments in the trial, one “could feel the presence of G-d in the courtroom.” One instance was when the case was about to go to the six-member jury. In a highly unusual move, an individual named Quentin Hart, who the defense had tried to empanel during jury selection but who was selected only as an alternate, was instructed to join the jury as a seventh member.


One juror had been disqualified and another was suffering health problems. To guarantee the case would not end in a mistrial due to the jury losing a member to illness, a last-minute decision by the judge brought Quentin Hart on board. He ended up becoming the jury foreman and leading deliberations to the much-prayed-for acquittal.




So much ink has been spilled, and so much time and effort expended, in explaining the legalities of the case and the harrowing plot twists in the legal and human drama. Often, missing from this avalanche of words is a sense of who this extravaganza is all about.


We know so much about what Sholom Mordechai Haleivi ben Rivka did or did not do. We are beginning to discover the full extent of what was done to him. But aside from the generally known facts, people wonder, who is he? How does he remain sane?


In a few brushstrokes, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, his yedid nefesh, opened a window into the reality of life in an Iowa prison, where a religious Jew is viewed as utterly alien. Guards are posted at Sholom Mordechai’s cell each morning, as he wraps himself in his tallis and tefillin which the guards keep under custody. They monitor him as he davens, making sure he doesn’t do anything dangerous with these suspicious items, and quickly take them back when he’s done.


Davening lifts Sholom Mordechai out of the wretchedness of his situation and lets him soar beyond the nerve-shattering loneliness and uncertainty. Every second is so precious. But while time flies for him under his tallis, the minutes are dragging by for the guards. They become impatient.  


He has just barely begun when they start growling about him taking too long to pray. He longs for the privacy and space to pour out his heart, but he is a prisoner in dangerous attire who must be kept under surveillance while he davens… So off come the tallis and tefillin. He slowly, lovingly wraps them up… Every second is so precious. The guard takes them, locks the prisoner in his cell, and leaves.


“Stories of Yidden thrown into prison for years on trumped-up charges are the stuff of bedtime stories we tell our children,” Rabbi Lipschutz told his audience. “These are the moser nefesh Yidden of yesteryear. These stories happened long ago in Poland, in Lita, in Germany…but don’t worry, not today, not where we live, we tell our children. Those things don’t happen in America, boruch Hashem.”




Try to visualize another scenario, the speaker says. Sholom Mordechai has been called to the courtroom to hear the verdict on the child-labor charges. His heart is pounding. He feels numb. So much fear and emotion for a bosor vodom, he reprimands himself.  The Ribono Shel Olam is in charge. Whatever He wants, we’ll accept with love. 


He picks up the kittel his family has sent to the prison and wraps himself in it. His heartbeat slows. He whispers a tefillah and some Tehillim. The tension begins to drain. He is calm when they come for him. He puts on his coat over the kittel as guards escort him out. 


He enters the courtroom, flashing his family a warm, encouraging smile. He glances at a sheet in front of his lawyer, Mr. Mark Weinhardt, numbering from 1 to 67. The lawyer will jot down the jury’s breakdown of the verdict alongside each one of the sixty-seven counts with which his client is charged.


“You don’t need 67 numbers,” Sholom Mordechai whispers to Weinhardt. “You just need one – not guilty on all counts.”


“You seem quite confident,” the lawyer smiles, surprised. 


 “I have a feeling it will be good news,” Sholom Mordechai smiles back.


The jury enters. The foreman hands the judge a thick pad of papers, which spells out the jury’s verdict to each of the respective charges. The judge glances through the papers for a few minutes and looks up. “I’ll make this fast and easy for everyone,” he tells the court. “Not guilty on all counts.”




Having the child-labor trial follow so soon after the April sentencing hearing diverted public attention from revelations that surfaced throughout the two-day event. As the media rode the wave of public interest in the May trial, the hearing and some of its striking disclosures were quickly forgotten.


With the trial over, let’s turn the pages back for a moment to some of those “headlines,” in particular the testimony of a strong defense witness at the sentencing hearing. Aaron Goldsmith’s eye-opening comments not only strongly rebutted pernicious claims by the government, but offered an intimate view into the defendant’s character.


Sholom Mordechai had been accused in government filings of bribing a public official, Robert Penrod, Postville’s former mayor. This allegation was one of a number of serious  charges the prosecution introduced in its sentencing report – never before mentioned in trial – in a last ditch  attempt to ramp up the recommended sentence as high as possible.


Goldsmith, a Postville businessman and former city council member who testified that he had extensive dealings with Sholom Mordechai on both a business and personal level, shredded the prosecution’s allegations. 


“In the course of your work in city council, did you come to know a fellow named Robert Penrod?” he was asked by defense counsel.


Goldsmith went on to describe Penrod as the Director of Public Works for Postville, who had been asked to resign after it was discovered that he was buying goods on the City’s account for his personal use.


Penrod made a political comeback, however, becoming elected as the mayor of Postville in 2008. His penchant for helping himself to the City’s money persisted, and he was once again forced to resign public office in disgrace.


This is the man Sholom Mordechai is accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. Asked about what he knew regarding payments Sholom Mordechai had made to Penrod, Goldsmith had the following to say.


“I heard from Sholom that Penrod – it was quite a while ago – came to him for loans. Penrod was hitting him up for loans. Sholom was livid, very frustrated.” 


“And what did Sholom say to you?” asked attorney Guy Cook.


“He asked me, ‘How do I get rid of him?’ He said, ‘He’s asked me for money before, and it puts me in a terrible spot.’”


Asked about this episode, Sholom Mordechai testified that at a meeting with Penrod, the former mayor had played a secret recording of a city meeting at which officials had spoken of plans to take measures that would cause major trouble for Agriprocessors. Penrod said that if he, Sholom Mordechai, did not loan him the money he requested, he would do nothing to stop the hostile action.


When asked by investigators what he remembered about any of this, Penrod claimed not to remember the meeting, receiving the money, or any aspect of the episode.




Goldsmith’s testimony became emotional when he was asked about Sholom Mordechai’s character, whether what he knew of the defendant matched the prosecution’s description of him as a greedy criminal who defrauded a bank.


Cook: The government in their filings in this case has described Sholom Rubashkin as an ordinary criminal, essentially motivated by greed –


Goldsmith: [breaking down in tears, trying to regain control] That’s why I’m crying –


Cook: And my question to you, sir, is, based on your dealings with him and interactions, did you make any observation about whether this man is motivated by greed?


Goldsmith: It’scriminal to call him a criminal. He made mistakes, but anything he did, he tried to do it for the benefit of the community, for the benefit of the people around him. He was always eager to please. He was not looking to undermine, to deceive or to cheat. He’s a decent, kind-hearted man. He’s generous without measure. Maybe he was in over his head, maybe he made mistakes, but the concept of him stealing and having criminal intent – is way beyond the pale. It has nothing to do with his character.


In an interview with the Yated, Goldsmith described his reaction upon seeing Sholom Mordechai in prison clothes, shackled and chained. “It’s like the story of the Emperor’s clothes… The emperor is walking around totally unclothed and no one says anything; everyone treats the outrageous as if it’s normal. That’s what’s going on here. A good, kind decent man is locked up, shackled like a violent criminal, maybe for life. It’s criminal. It’s obscene. But everyone is like it’s ho-hum, business as usual. Where’s the outcry?”


Let’s turn back now to the Atrium rally and Mr. Simmins’ closing remarks that echo the thoughts and prayers in the hearts of so many.


“I doubt Judge Reade is listening to this via the hookup for non-Monsey residents, but if you are… I pray that when it comes time for you to sentence Sholom Mordechai on June 22, the Al-mighty turns your heart to see all that has happened to him here. How they’ve taken away his business, his assets, and trashed his name. I pray you come to the conclusion that enough is enough, that with all the months he’s already spent in prison, his sentence should be time served.” 


Enough time has been served, Judge Reade, by Sholom Mordechai. More than enough time has been served. Time served, Judge Reade, time served.




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