No one denied that Sholom Rubashkin’s
crimes were serious. The former chief executive of what was once the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant was convicted of more than 80 counts of financial fraud in 2009, following a massive immigration raid on the family-owned facility in northeastern Iowa. Prosecutors said he had profited off the labor of hundreds of undocumented immigrants, some of them children, and had bilked lenders out of more than $26 million.
But his punishment was draconian, some argued, especially for a first-time, nonviolent offender. Though Rubashkin was cleared of child labor violations and immigration charges against him were dropped, a federal judge sentenced him to 27 years in prison, longer than some defendants receive for murder. For the middle-aged father of 10, it amounted to a de facto life term.
On top of that, an array of lawmakers, law enforcement officials and legal experts claimed his case had been tainted by egregious misconduct by prosecutors. His supporters included five former attorneys general, among them Michael Mukasey, who headed the Justice Department when Rubashkin was charged. As Rubashkin idled in a New York correctional facility, calls mounted for his sentence to be commuted.
The Obama administration rebuffed the efforts. But on Wednesday, President Trump commuted Rubashkin’s sentence.
The White House said in a statement that Trump made the decision at the urging of officials, scholars and congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The statement offered few details, but noted that the action was not a presidential pardon vacating his conviction.
“The President’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community,” the statement read, adding that many had expressed concerns “about the evidentiary proceedings in Mr. Rubashkin’s case and the severity of his sentence.”
Rubashkin, before he was imprisoned, and members of the Rubashkin family then and since, have been significant contributors to political candidates and committees, most but not all of them Republicans, according to the database kept by OpenSecrets.org.
Rubashkin, now 57, had served more than eight years in prison. He was released on Wednesday from the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, N.Y., where his wife picked him up, according to the Des Moines Register. His attorney, Guy Cook, praised the president’s move, saying his longtime client “has finally received justice.”
“President Trump has done what is right and just,” Cook told the Register. “The unrelenting efforts on behalf of Rubashkin have finally paid off.”
But Robert Teig, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Iowa who was involved in Rubashkin’s prosecution, told the Associated Press the commutation “makes no sense” given Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration. In comments to the Register, he added: “[Rubashkin] couldn’t win legally, factually or morally, so he had to win politically. It’s sad when politics interferes with the justice system.”
This is the second time Trump has used his clemency powers since he took office. In August, he pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for deliberately defying judicial orders to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. Arpaio faced up to six months in prison but had not yet been sentenced.
The case against Rubashkin unfolded in May 2008, when a small army of helicopters, buses and federal agents in tactical gear descended on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which was suspected of employing undocumented immigrants. Never before had so many law enforcement officers raided a single business site, as The Washington Post reported at the time.
Authorities rounded up 389 undocumented immigrants, more than 20 of them minors, who described a long list of abhorrent working conditions, including 12-hour shifts without overtime pay and exposure to dangerous chemicals. A spokesman for a food workers union compared it to scenes from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
Rubashkin and other company executives faced a range of charges, including conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants for profit and more than 9,000 child labor law violations. He was accused of helping workers obtain fraudulent identity cards and paying employees in cash under the table, among other offenses.
Eventually, prosecutors zeroed in on financial crimes, alleging Rubashkin laundered money through a secret bank account and submitted fake documents to banks so he could borrow more. He was acquitted of the child labor claims but convicted on 86 counts of federal bank fraud and money laundering. The immigration charges were dismissed voluntarily by prosecutors. His appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prosecutors initially sought a life sentence, then changed their request to 25 years in prison. When U.S. District Judge Linda R. Reade sentenced him to 27 years, many observers noted that it was nearly three years longer than the term former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling received for his role in the collapse of the energy giant.
Why Reade imposed such a severe sentence has been the subject of dispute. But a group of 107 former Justice Department officials said in a letter to the Obama administration in 2016 that prosecutors improperly interfered with the sale of Agriprocessors, which filed for bankruptcy shortly after the immigration raid, and inflated his sentence as a result.
According to the officials, prosecutors drove away several prospective buyers, including one who offered to $40 million for the company. The apparent goal was to make sure that none of Rubashkin’s family members could take over.
When Agriprocessors was eventually sold for $8.5 million, the company’s lenders were left with huge losses, making Rubashkin’s crimes seem far more severe than they actually were, the officials said. The U.S. attorney’s office in northern Iowa has rejected the allegations.
“Experienced former prosecutors and career Justice Department officials view this case as a stain on an institution created to uphold the law,” Philip B. Heymann, a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed late last year. “If the department’s leadership refuses to act, I hope President Obama pardons Rubashkin and ends this tragedy. The alternative is a display of either blind self-righteousness or frightened defensiveness that is inconsistent with the Justice Department we all have served and respected.”
Dozens of members of Congress and 80 former federal judges raised similar issues in letters to the Justice Department and the White House in the years after Rubashkin was sentenced. The White House posted a ream of those documents online Wednesday. Among them was a March 1 letter from Hatch, who said he was “shocked” by the sentence Rubashkin received and described the “special bond” between Rubashkin and his autistic son, Moishe.
Also included was a Feb. 23 letter from the Justice Department officials following up on their petition to the Obama administration.
“We remain deeply troubled by the manifest injustice in this case and the harm it has caused to Mr. Rubashkin, his family, and to public confidence in the ability of our Federal courts to fairly administer justice,” it read. “Please be assured that should you decide to grant clemency to Mr. Rubashkin, you will be joined by scores of legal and judicial experts nationwide who will both publicly and privately support and applaud your commitment to ensure that justice is finally achieved in this matter.”