Rubashkin trial: Agriprocessors manager bragged about firing minors, witness says

4:15 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — The jury is dismissed for the day. The attorneys are now hashing out some issues related to evidence presented today.

Aaron Goldsmith said he made an unannounced visit with a university professor to Agriprocessors in 2007 and found it to be a clean, well-run plant. He later brought many groups to tour the plant

He never observed anyone who looked like a minor, he said.

“The plant was an open book,” defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown said.

Goldsmith briefly sobbed and wiped his eyes when he told of efforts by Jewish journalists and other opponents of Agriprocessors to smear the Rubashkin family name. He said the critics, which included union organizers, had no long-term interest in the health of the town or the company.

“The Rubashkins became fodder for opportunists,” he said.

When union organizers notified him that minors may be working in the slaughterhouse, he told Sholom Rubashkin.

He said he and Rubashkin perceived the union organizer to be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” because the organizer claimed he shared the information to help the company.

Goldsmith said he rented a few apartments to Guatemalan workers in Postville, and said he often “could not tell many times the sisters from the mothers.”

3:41 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — Greg Johnson is off the stand after about three minutes. He said he toured the plant in March 2006 and didn’t see any minors.

“I saw adults working on machines and on equipment that was designed for adults,” he said.

The next witness is Aaron Goldsmith, former Postville city council member. He now makes custom beds for the disabled.

3:35 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — Cross-examination of Chaim Abrahams is complete. The next witness will be Greg Johnson. He’s a technology consultant at University of Iowa. A self-described animal advocate and vegetarian, he toured Agriprocessors after watching a PETA video of alleged animal cruelty inside the kosher slaughterhouse.

The cross:

Abrahams said a law firm and the National Meat Association warned Agriprocessors about the May 12, 2008 immigration raid a few days before it happened.

The prosecutor showed him an email from a manager complaining about being sent a worker who weighs less than 100 pounds. “What are we supposed to do with him? Is this some kind of a joke?”

Elizabeth Billmeyer, the human resources manager, responded and instructed another manager to not send “four-foot, 80-pound children” anymore. “I don’t have a problem breaking men, but do have a problem breaking children.”

Deputy Iowa Attorney General Thomas H. Miller said some I-9 employment forms went unsigned. Abrahams said he did not know why they would not have been signed.

Miller described a hiring process in which another human resources employee filled out applications, and handed them to Billmeyer. She made the final hiring decision without meeting with the applicant, Miller said.

2:50 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — We’re on short afternoon break. I received a few questions from a reader about what exactly the prosecution has to prove, and if the judge had ruled on the defense’s motion to throw out the case.

The judge hasn’t ruled on the defense’s request to throw out the case — called a directed verdict — but he indicated he was leaning toward allowing the bulk of the case to go to jury. The judge said he was also leaning toward throwing out roughly 16 charges connected to alleged underage workers who didn’t end up testifying.

In arguing about the directed verdict yesterday afternoon, the state and defense attorneys disagreed on what the state has to prove.

The defense argued the state failed to prove Rubashkin knowingly hired any minors or was told of any decisions to hire minors by another manager. The state argued they only have to prove Rubashkin willfully concealed or permitted minors to work at the plant, which could have happened after minors were already employed there.

Judges rarely throw out cases on directed verdicts because they have to consider evidence in the most favorable light for the prosecution.

2:40 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — Chaim Abrahams cross-examination coming up. Here’s his direct, which should be wrapping up shortly:

Former Agriprocessors manager Chaim Abrahams said sometime in 2008 the company’s human resources manager bragged about locating and firing several minors.

When he first heard about the allegation of underage workers at the plant, he said plant management was surprised.

“It sounded more like one of those tricks the union might be pulling on us.”

Agriprocessors had long claimed unions were trying to organize the kosher slaughterhouse in Postville.

Abrahams described an informal and dysfunctional management structure caused by the Rubashkin family’s lack of business experience.

He said this meant that the human resources manager, Elizabeth Billmeyer, usually reported to Heshy and not Sholom. A former plant manager testified for the defense earlier today that Billmeyer reported to Sholom.

Sholom Rubashkin and his brother, Heshy, constantly argued about how to run the company, Abrahams said.

He said Sholom believed the company’s payroll was too large, and Heshy, who ran the day-to-day operations, always pushed for more workers.

“Sholom Rubashkin used to scream every week, ‘We have too many people. Payroll is too big,’” he said.

But Heshy usually got his way because he was “stronger, more aggressive, more demanding,” Abrahamas said.

Abrahams said Sholom’s attention was split in many directions. He said Sholom stayed in daily contact with a slaughterhouse purchased by his father in Gordon, Neb., in 2005.

He carried two cell phones, and called distributors in New York and Florida every day, Abrahams said.

Sholom had to deal with efforts to resist unionization efforts, and attacks from People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals.

He also oversaw a many construction projects at the plant, and once had to travel to Europe to approve one, Abrahams said.

“(The project) was Heshy’s idea, to make more product and reach more markets,” said Abrahams, who called making kosher food available to more people religiously significant.

He said if someone in a small town in Montana wanted kosher food available, that person likely knew to “pick up the phone and call Rubashkin.” Agriprocessors would drive hundreds of miles out of the way to make the delivery, he said.

Abrahams said he was in charge of purchasing safety equipment, and said the company spent about $100,000 per year on the equipment.

He said the company also provided safety training videos and forms in Spanish.

Prosecution witnesses repeatedly said they had to purchase their own safety equipment if they needed to replace it. The Spanish-speaking workers also said they received safety training only in English.

As a kosher slaughterhouse, he said purchasers demanded good conditions inside the plant. They also gave frequent tours to politicians, consumer rights groups, and students to tour the plants, he said.

Vendors and suppliers even had their own key cards to enter the plant without telling management, Abrahams said.

“Did you ever hear anybody say, don’t let them in until we get the minors out of there?” defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown said.

“Never ever did I hear that statement from anybody,” Abrahams said.

1:30 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — The next defense witness will be Chaim Abrahams. He was an Agriprocessors manager, and served as spokesman immediately after the immigration raid.

One thing while we wait for the jury to come back from lunch: The testimony from the former Agriprocessors attorney — that the state knew the names of minors at the plant and refused to hand them over so the company could fire them — goes to one of the primary arguments for the defense.

In an overview piece previewing the trial, Register reporter Grant Schulte wrote:

His attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, alleged in court papers that state labor investigators identified the underage workers in April 2008 – one month before the immigration raid – but refused to share their names with plant managers.

Brown said many of the underage workers applied for jobs with fake birth certificates, which created a “legal Catch-22″ for Agriprocessors:

Plant managers could not have known which workers were underage, Brown argued. At the same time, he said, the managers had no legal right “to guess at ages or fire employees en masse on mere suspicion.”

Prosecutors disputed the claim. State investigators did not know which workers were minors until September 2008 and were stonewalled by plant managers, two assistant attorneys general, Laura Roan and Thomas H. Miller, argued in court documents.

12:13 p.m., Waterloo, Ia. — An attorney who represented Agriprocessors said the kosher slaughterhouse did not knowingly hire minors, and the state department of labor refused to provide the names of underage workers it had discovered before a May 12, 2008 immigration raid.

State prosecutors presented an e-mail that showed Sholom Rubashkin was aware of child labor investigations by state and federal officials.

Mary Funk, who represented Agriprocessors in 2007 and 2008, said she repeatedly asked for the names of the alleged underage workers because Agriprocessors wanted to fire them. However, she said an attorney with the state told her she could not because the investigation was ongoing.

Defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown suggested the state refused to supply the names because it planned a “big bust” with “big fines.”

Funk confirmed she wrote a letter to the state labor department in February 2008 that said Agriprocessors does not “knowingly hire any employees under the age of 18.”

Funk said she wrote the statement because Agriprocessors human resources manager Elizabeth Billmeyer told her that was the policy of the kosher slaughterhouse.

Billmeyer also said that during the application process she asked for a driver’s license if she questioned an applicant’s age, and would also ask for a birth certificate, Funk testified.

Funk said Billmeyer asked her what she should do if she discovered minors at the plant. She advised the company to fire them.

However, former workers who said they were minors while employed at Agriprocessors have often testified over the past several weeks that they were never asked for a driver’s license.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan argued the company stalled the investigation because it had a month before the raid to supply the personnel files of the names and failed to do so. The files were seized by federal agents after the raid, delaying the labor investigation.

The defense suggested the plant may have been slow to turn over the files because of Passover, a Jewish holiday.

Funk said it appeared federal and state labor investigators were sharing information about their child labor investigations.

In an e-mail dated April 2008, Sholom Rubashkin wrote that requests for information from the two departments need “some explanation,” and asked the opinion of his attorney.

“Does this accurately reflect the defendant’s involvement on issue?” Roan said.

“I can’t honestly say how involved he was with anything else. All I can say is that my oral communications were with Elizabeth Billmeyer on this subject,” Funk replied.

10:40 a.m., Waterloo, Ia. — Agriprocessors plant manager Garry Norris testified Wednesday that two supervisors never warned him about minors at the plant.

“The only time I was aware of minors was when I was informed someone was discovered and terminated,” he said.

He described one supervisor who testified otherwise, Mark Spangler, as an alcoholic. He called the other, Matthew Derrick, lazy. He said those qualities ultimately cost the two, whom were roommates while at Agriprocessors, their jobs.

“Are you certain that conversation did not happen?” said Deputy Iowa Attorney General Thomas H. Miller, referring to a discussion with Spangler about minors at the plant.

“Yes, I am,” Norris replied.

Norris said Sholom Rubashkin, who is facing 83 misdemeanor child labor charges, served as CEO and vice president of the kosher slaughterhouse in Postville.

Part of his duties included overseeing the finance and human resources departments, Norris said.

Norris said Rubashkin sometimes walked the plant floor.

Spangler and Derrick — as well as a third supervisor, Brian Griffith – have testified it was easy to identify minors by walking the plant floor.

However, Norris repeatedly testified that it was difficult for him to tell the ages of people.

Norris hunched over and spoke in a flat voice. He appeared to become annoyed with some questions from the prosecutor, and the two briefly started talking over each other.

Black Hawk County District Associate Judge Nathan Callahan stopped the proceedings and warned them to wait for the other to finish speaking.

After the jury left the room, Miller apologized to the judge. Callahan called him a skilled lawyer, but said his job was to control the courtroom.

“If you pick up a sword and fight with me, you’re going to get a sword fight,” Callahan said.

The next witness will be Mary Funk, a lawyer specializing in employment and labor law at the Nyemaster Good law firm in Des Moines.

9:05 a.m., Waterloo, Ia. — The defense’s first witness is former Agriprocessors plant manager Gary Norris. He’s been mentioned a few times by supervisors who said they told him about minors at the plant.

He’s now a manager at Agristar, the successor of Agriprocessors.