Moral stakes in Rubashkin child labor case were high, both sides say

WATERLOO — Although Sholom Rubashkin is facing up to 25 years in federal prison for a fraud conviction, the recently concluded state trial over misdemeanor child labor charges was an important fight, according to people from both sides of the battle.

“This kind of talks to what type of person you are, in the sense of ‘would you think of putting minors on a slaughterhouse floor?'” said his wife, Leah Rubashkin. “Of all the allegations, this was the most serious one.”

On Monday, a Black Hawk County jury acquitted Sholom Rubashkin, a former executive at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, of all 67 child labor counts.

The trial included almost a month of testimony and involved flying several witnesses from Guatemala to Waterloo to take the stand.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office prosecuted the case with three staff attorneys in the courtroom and was matched by Sholom Rubashkin’s three defense attorneys.

Despite the time and resources spent on the case, each count was punishable by up to 30 days in jail, so at the worst Sholom Rubashkin risked having 5 1/2 of years of state time added onto his yet undetermined federal sentence.

Unlike the federal time, the state time would have been subject to parole, or it could have been suspended in favor of probation. Or a judge could have allowed him to serve it concurrent with the federal sentence.

But even with the comparatively low prison risk, defending the child labor case was important because it attacked Sholom Rubashkin’s character, his family said.

Defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown said child labor was the “worst of the worst” possible charges a businessman can face.

“The moral weight of this case was stronger. The newsworthy element of this whole trial has really been based around the human story … That’s what really struck a chord with people — the allegations of abuse, the allegations of exploitation,” said son, Getzel Rubashkin.

He said the federal bank fraud charges — which the government won and alleged Sholom Rubashkin made false statements to get loans for the business — were “arcane” to the general public.

Exploiting children, on the other hand, was a juicy topic.

“Around the dinner table, this is the stuff people talk about. This is the stuff that bothers people. It bothered my father to no end,” Getzel Rubashkin said.

The family said it felt vindicated by the acquittal verdict. The federal immigration charges were dumped with the fraud conviction.

For the state, the child labor case wasn’t about adding a few years onto Rubashkin’s federal sentence.

“If child labor is to be a crime in this state, there’s no case that should be prosecuted if not this one,” said Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller.

He said there are occasions where grocery store chains or other businesses that rely on young workers violate child labor laws in minor ways — for instance, holding underage workers past their allotted eight hours in a day — where minor fines are appropriate.

“But a case where you got the wholesale employment of 26, 31, 60 — Lord knows how many hundreds more — minors at one plant, then there’s a serious situation. It had to be dealt with as a serious situation,” Miller said.

Allegations in the Agriprocessors case included claims minors worked in the meatpacking facility against state law, used power-driven saws and scissors, worked with dangerous chemicals and worked past their allotted hours.

In delivering the not guilty verdict, jurors said they saw no concrete evidence Sholom Rubashkin knew of and permitted the employment of minors.

Agriprocessors, as a corporation, entered a guilty plea to 83 child labor charges with the footnote that the conviction wasn’t based on the knowledge or intent of Sholom Rubashkin or his father, Abraham “Aaron” Rubashkin.

The company faces fines, although Miller admits there is no chance of collecting because it is in bankruptcy with other creditors at the head of the line.

Elizabeth Billmeyer, the plant’s human resources manager, will plead to state child labor charges under an agreement with the state, Miller said. Her time will run concurrent with her federal time for harboring undocumented aliens and accepting counterfeit resident alien cards.

She was originally sentenced to a year and a day, but that was changed to eight months on Thursday. Documents explaining the reduction have been sealed.

State child labor charges against Aaron Rubashkin, who owned the company, were dropped in May, and he was never charged federally.

The Attorney General’s Office also dismissed charges against Agriprocessors office employees Laura Althouse and Karina Freund. Freund was sentenced to a year of probation in the federal case, and Althouse got two years’ federal probation.

State child law charges are still pending against former Agriprocessors supervisor Jeff Heasley, who had his case separated from the other defendants.