Jewish Food

Most Wanted: The Big, Bad Butchers and Bullies of Agriprocessors

On May 12, 2008, 900 federal and state law enforcement personnel raided Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. They arrested almost 400 illegal alien workers and had outstanding warrants for hundreds more. On the day of the raid, more than … Read More

By / July 24, 2008

On May 12, 2008, 900 federal and state law enforcement personnel raided Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. They arrested almost 400 illegal alien workers and had outstanding warrants for hundreds more. On the day of the raid, more than two thirds of Agriprocessors’ workforce was illegal. Reports of horrific worker abuse by Agriprocessors quickly surfaced, and a federal official present during the raid called conditions at Agriprocessors “medieval.” It was the largest single-site immigration raid in US history, but the raid was not the first time Agriprocessors or its owners, the Rubashkin family of Chabad hasidim, have been in trouble with the law. These are your kosher butchers:

Name: Abraham Aaron Rubashkin
Age: Early 80s
Last Seen: Denying guilt
Aaron Rubashkin, a Russian-born Brooklyn butcher and Chabad-Lubavitch hasid with widespread business interests, founded Agriprocessors in 1987 after buying an abandoned slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. In order to keep the plant open while paying what many regard as the industry’s lowest wages, Aaron Rubashkin turned to illegal, undocumented workers, first relying on Eastern Europeans funneled to Postville from Rubashkin’s Brooklyn butcher shop, as Stephen G. Bloom documented in his 2000 book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. When securing enough Eastern European illegal workers became difficult, Rubashkin turned to illegal workers from Mexico and Central America, reportedly paying them below the minimum wage and forcing them to work 14 to 17-hour shifts with unpaid overtime. Agriprocessors allegedly supplied illegals with forged identity papers and other documents. Over the years, Rubashkin bought up much of Postville’s available real estate, renting homes and apartments to illegals at what many consider to be inflated rates. Among the charges hurled at Rubashkin after the ICE raid was his alleged tying of property rental to employment, with illegals told that they should rent from Rubashkin in order to secure a job at Agriprocessors. Those workers then were trapped in an allegedly exploitative rental agreement that saw their rents raised monthly. Renting elsewhere meant loss of employment, transfer to an undesirable job within the plant or to an undesirable shift. Rubashkin was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for collecting union dues from workers at another business he owned, Cherry Hill Textiles (this with son Moshe – see below) but keeping the collected dues for his family. The National Labor Relations Board found the Rubashkins had a “proclivity” for violating the National Labor Relations Act and mandated repayment of all money collected, with interest. He was also implicated in the Allou Healthcare bankruptcy scandal. Although not charged, Rubashkin was found to have accepted $3.2 million dollars in payments from Allou, for which the government could find nothing Allou received in return. Speaking for Agriprocessors, Rubashkin’s son Sholom M. Rubashkin (see below) at first claimed nothing was given to Allou. Later, he amended his statement to claim Allou – in the healthcare equipment and pharmaceutical business – purchased $3.2 million dollars worth of kosher meat. No trace of that meat has ever been found and Rubashkin claimed the Agriprocessors executive responsible for the Allou transactions died at his desk in 2004, taking all details of the “sale” to his grave. Rubashkin was forced to pay $1.4 million dollars to help replay Allou’s creditors. Allou’s owners, Satmar hasidim, are now serving jail terms for fraud.
Name: Rabbi Sholom M. Rubashkin, Agriprocessors VP and CEO
Age: Late 40s
Last Seen: Dodging Immigration Agents
Ordained by Chabad, Sholom M. Rubashkin pursued a career as a Chabad House rabbi. In 1987, he was compelled by his father to leave the rabbinate and take over the on-site operations of Agriprocessors in Postville. Agriprocessors’ battles with the town of Postville, the EPA, the USDA, PETA, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union have all been led by Sholom M. Rubashkin. Under his watch, slaughterers used meat hooks to rip out the throats of still conscious animals and kicked blood in the eyes of dying animals. Agriprocessors so polluted the environment that the the company was sued by the EPA. The Rubashkins eventually settled with the EPA, paying a $600,000 fine. Additionally, turkeys produced by Agriprocessors were found to have sodium levels far in excess of stated amounts. Along with his sister’s husband, Rabbi Milton Yehoshua Balkany (see below) Sholom M. Rubashkin is a frequent and generous donor to Republican political campaigns, giving tens of thousands of dollars to favored candidates including Catherine Harris, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, Iowa Congressman Tom Lathum, and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. The family’s contributions to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge’s campaign for governor at a time she was responsible for regulating Agriprocessors also raised ethical issues. The family’s bundled contributions given to Grassley, Specter, and Harris – $20,000 each – along with lesser contributions to Lathum drew PETA’s ire in 2005, when PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich noted: “A federal legislator should not be taking money from a company that is being sued by one federal agency [the EPA – Rubashkin settled] and that is under investigation by another [the USDA – Rubashkin was found to have violated Humane Slaughter Law but the Bush Department of Justice declined to prosecute]—that just screams conflict of interest.”
Name: Rabbi Milton Yehoshua Balkany
Age: 62
Last Seen: Playing Tony Soprano
The husband of Abraham Aaron Rubashkin’s daughter Sarah, Balkany is notorious for his practice of bundling campaign contributions to skirt federal campaign finance law, handing envelopes full of checks from various Balkany-Rubashkin family members to politicians. Balkany’s largess largely benefits Republican candidates, and his bundled contributions give him – and his father-in-law – aggregated influence.

In 2003, Balkany was detained on charges he misused $700,000 in HUD grant money intended for handicapped toddlers. Most of the money had been transferred by Balkany into bank accounts controlled by his children, including at least one in Israel. Balkany also used this grant money to pay his personal credit card bills and to pad his personal bank accounts.

In a deal with the US Attorney’s office, Balkany – who claimed his actions were sloppy accounting practices, not theft – agreed to make restitution and to refrain from seeking any more federal grants. He was never prosecuted.

Balkany has been implicated in other scandals involving government funds and is now barred from lobbying Bureau of Prisons officials after allegations of bribe-taking surfaced.

Balkany also tried to have a Jewish aide to then-US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan excommunicated after the aide wrote memos detailing Balkany’s strong-arm attempts to force the Israeli government to use US aid money for Balkany’s pet projects in Israel.

In an attempt to end Orthodox justice group Uri L’Tzedek’s boycott of Agriprocessors, while officially representing Agriprocessors and his father-in-law at a meeting in mid-June, Balkany reportedly threatened the Orthodox justice group’s leadership in a manner eerily reminiscent of Tony Soprano.

Name: Moshe Rubashkin
Age: 50
Last Seen: Pleading guilty
The elder son of Abraham Aaron Rubashkin has a criminal record stretching back twenty-five years. He was arrested in 1983 for felony assault and rioting (he later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges). As noted above, in 1995 he and his father were caught collecting union dues from their Cherry Hill Textiles employees but keeping the money for themselves. The National Labor relations Board forced the Rubashkins to repay the money taken with interest, and banned their attorney from practicing before the NLRB for six months.

In 2002, Moshe Rubashkin was arrested for bank fraud. He pleaded guilty and served almost two years in Fort Dix Federal Prison. Just months after his release, Moshe Rubashkin was elected president of the Chabad-Lubavitch-controlled Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, which annually receives and administers millions of dollars in government funds.

Late last year, Moshe and his son Sholom (the nephew of Agriprocessors’ CEO/VP Sholom M. Rubashkin) were indicted on federal charges related to the family’s abandoned textile mill in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which burned in a series of suspicious fires. Although the family engaged in a convoluted cover up meant to hide ownership of the property and defraud the EPA and the city of Allentown, Moshe Rubashkin was only charged with illegal storage of hazardous waste. His son was charged with knowingly making a false statement to federal authorities. Both charges are felonies.

Originally due to be sentenced on July 16, the government agreed to postpone sentencing until November 3 to allow Moshe Rubashkin and his son more time to repay the $450,000 they owe the EPA. The rub? The money for this repayment appears to be coming from other Rubashkin family members who themselves draw their income from Agriprocessors and related companies, not from Moshe Rubashkin himself. When pressed, an official close to the case could not explain the need to allow Moshe Rubashkin and son to remain free to facilitate this repayment.

Name: Nathan Lewin
Age: About 70
Last Seen: Defending Agriprocessors
The noted constitutional attorney has long served as legal counsel for Agriprocessors, and Lewin is also closely connected to Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox advocacy organization.

As I first reported in late 2004, on October 23, 2003, Agudath Israel officials, and, I’m told, Lewin, along with rabbis from various kosher supervisions, met with senior USDA staff in Washington. My sources tell me that Lewin did not disclose his connection to Agriprocessors.

The subject of that meeting was a USDA directive that outlawed “sawing” during religious slaughter. Agudath Israel claimed the directive’s current language could easily be misinterpreted by USDA inspectors and would, they feared, be used incorrectly to stop kosher slaughter. The USDA agreed to change the language and relied heavily on Agudath Israel – and, it seems, Nathan Lewin – to write a new directive. What made its way into that new directive? Approval of a second cut to “facilitate bleeding” – the basis for Agriprocessors’ meat hook throat-ripping exposed by PETA.

During the furor surrounding exposure of that throat-ripping, Lewin played the Holocaust card, comparing PETA to Nazis and alleging PETA’s true aim was to end shechita.

In the days immediately preceding the release of PETA’s undercover video, Lewin told a sympathetic reporter for the New York Sun that he, as Agriprocessors counsel, had offered to discuss with PETA and, if necessary, resolve any problems at Agriprocessors. PETA, Lewin claimed, never responded to him.

The actual letter Lewin sent to PETA – now posted on PETA’s website – shows that Lewin misrepresented the tone of his letter and that Lewin and Agriprocessors did not offer to meet PETA.

At the close of Agudath Israel’s national convention in November 2004, on the eve of the release of PETA’s exposé, Agudath Israel leader Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel asked the convention for a unanimous vote condemning PETA and supporting Agriprocessors. He got that vote – even though no one voting except for Lewin had seen PETA’s evidence.

The USDA, in response to PETA’s video and other documentation, conducted its own investigation and found that Agriprocessors violated the Humane Slaughter Act. It also found its inspectors took illegal gifts from Agriprocessors and often slept or played computer games on the job. The USDA kept that decision secret for almost one year, while the US Attorney for Northern Iowa declined to prosecute. PETA forced release of the damning USDA findings by filing and actively pursuing Freedom of Information Act requests against the agency.

Name: Menachem Lubinsky
Age: Unknown
Last Seen: Spinning
Head of Lubicom, a kosher industry marketing and PR firm, Lubinsky is a former Agudath Israel of America VP and a current member of its board of trustees, as well as a longtime paid consultant and flack for Agriprocessors. Yet, in his role as editor of the industry trade journal Kosher Today, and as a sought after expert for media reports on kosher food, Lubinsky commented on various Agriprocessors scandals without identifying himself as a paid consultant of Agriprocessors.

Like Lewin, Lubinsky played the Holocaust card, comparing PETA to Nazis and alleging PETA’s true aim was to end shechita.

Name: 5W Public Relations
Age: 5
Last Seen: Impersonating Competent PR professionals
America’s “fastest growing” PR firm counts Agriprocessors, Paris Hilton, “Girls Gone Wild” producer Joe Francis, a handful of Israeli politicians, Pastor John Hagee, and various hip hop artists among its clients.

Headed by CEO (and former Betar-USA head) Ronn Torossian and SVP Juda Engelmayer (owner of the Lower East Side icon Kossor’s Bialys), 5W was caught impersonating critics of Agriprocessors online. 5WPR at first denied the impersonations, and then blamed them on an unnamed “intern.” The problems for 5WPR multiplied when it became clear the “intern did it” excuse was not credible.

In the wake of the massive immigration raid that crippled it, Agriprocessors promised to comply with the law and to begin a new era of ethical business. Despite those promises, Agriprocessors continues to retain 5WPR.