With Prayers and Support, Rubashkin Goes on Trial After Plea Bargain Fails

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 14, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.

The trial of former kosher slaughterhouse executive Sholom Rubashkin began in South Dakota on October 12, though only after a failed effort to reach a plea bargain, according to a close confidant of the defendant.

Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, was arrested last year, five months after his company was the subject of a massive immigration raid; most of the 163 counts that Rubashkin has been charged with relate to bank fraud and harboring undocumented immigrants.

Rabbi Shea Hecht, a leading Chabad Lubavitch rabbi who has provided support to Rubashkin’s defense, told the Forward that Rubashkin, 49, wanted to strike a plea bargain with the U.S. attorneys to avoid a jury trial.

“There were negotiations — an offer was put on the table,” Hecht said. “He had to refuse the offer because compared to what he did wrong, they were asking for too much. There was no way that a man should give the prime of his life away.”

Hecht would not discuss the terms that Rubashkin would have accepted — but he did say that Rubashkin was willing to serve a prison term in order to strike a bargain. Hecht met with Rubashkin in person when the court gave Rubashkin permission to visit New York for the Jewish high holidays. Rubashkin has otherwise been out on bail in Iowa. Hecht said that when Rubashkin visited Hecht’s New York office, he expressed a desire to deal with the charges.

“He said, ‘Listen, things were done wrong, but not what they are claiming,’” Hecht said. “He was very confident.”

The United States attorney’s office that is prosecuting Rubashkin would not say whether a plea bargain had been discussed.

A lawyer for Rubashkin, Guy Cook, also would not comment. Rubashkin has pleaded not guilty to all 163 counts.

Rubashkin and his family are members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect, and the family has received hefty support from other members of the sect in advance of the trial. The day before the trial began, dozens of children gathered at the last Chabad rebbe’s grave to pray “for a miraculous victory” for Rubashkin, according to a colorful poster for the event.

Earlier in the day, a bus load of Rubashkin’s supporters left from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and drove overnight to Sioux Falls. A woman who answered the phone at the number printed on an advertisement for the bus ride would not provide her name. She said that the funding for the trip came from private sources.

“It was a grassroots effort to pack the courtroom with supporters — and hopefully we’ll pull it off,” she said. “We’ll be able to show the court that this man is being charged incorrectly — and he really is what they call a tzaddik,” or holy man.

On October 13, as the trial began, The Des Moines Register reported that the court facilities were inundated with young supporters of Rubashkin. Rubashkin’s nephew, Yossi, told the paper: “I’m extremely optimistic about the trial. That might not make sense to you. It’s just faith. Faith in God.”

Rubashkin has also received significant financial support from a committee formed by the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, a Chabad organization that helps imprisoned Chabadniks. Hecht is chairman of the NCFJE, and he said that the group had already given funding “in the six figures” to help Rubashkin’s case. Hecht’s brother, Sholem Ber Hecht, is leading the committee dedicated to Rubashkin’s case.

“The community sees it as an attack, number one, on kosher food, and number two, as an attack on religious Jews,” Shea Hecht said.

The judge overseeing the case, Linda Reade, moved the trial from Iowa to Sioux Falls, citing the extensive press coverage. Reade warned the lawyers on both sides not to speak to the press in South Dakota. Rubashkin’s lawyer, Cook, told the Forward that the move gives Rubashkin “a chance at a fair trial.”

Rubashkin will face two separate trials supervised by Reade — the first relating to the bank fraud charges and the second, beginning as soon as the first ends, covering the immigration charges. The first trial will revolve largely around financial transactions involving a multi-million dollar loan that Agriprocessors received. The U.S. attorney intends to prove that Rubashkin “instructed employees at Agriprocessors to create invoices and bills of lading for sales that never occurred,” according to court documents.

Prosecutors intend to call as witnesses several former company managers who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for cooperating with the government.

In court documents, Rubashkin’s lawyers have argued that the government will have trouble proving that he intended to defraud the bank and the government. The lawyers are submitting evidence that shows Rubashkin’s civic involvement and charitable work, including pictures of him at worship and in the company of rabbis and Iowa politicians.

Contact Nathaniel Popper at popper@forward.com



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