As she awaits her husband’s sentencing next Thursday for federal bank fraud, Leah Rubashkin described him as a man who “always had a hard time” running the family’s kosher slaughterhouse and “did everything he could to keep all the bills paid.”
During the nearly month-long trial of her husband, Sholom Rubashkin, defense attorneys and prosecutors alike portrayed Agriprocessors, Inc., in Postville, Iowa, as a business continually teetering on the brink of financial collapse. To cover cash shortfalls, Rubashkin routinely took out bank loans.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Rubashkin had deliberately falsified invoices for use as collateral to obtain loans that cost St. Louis-based First Bank Business Capital about $26 million; the defense argued the loss was $4.5 million. Former Agriprocessors employees testified that Rubashkin ordered them to create the fake invoices to inflate the company’s income.
Prosecutors claimed Rubashkin used $300,000 of his company’s money to pay his credit card bills, $200,000 to remodel his Postville home and $25,000 for jewelry. He was, they said, “living a rich lifestyle using Agriprocessors’ money.”
But Leah Rubashkin denied that in a phone interview.
“In my estimation, we were just a little humble family driving a Buick Rendezvous and a broken-down van. We never lived the life that you envision for those who own those companies.”
Asked what she believes her husband’s sentence should be, she thought for a few moments.
“We’ve been through a lot already and Sholom has had his name smashed,” she said. “I don’t know the right words to say — his name has been made into mud and the family has lost the family business. We’re basically living on charity. … What we are looking for in the court system is that they treat us the way they would treat any other person in this situation. I’d be happy with time served. He has served almost a year already in a county jail — terrible facilities.”
Rubashkin’s attorneys declined to make Rubashkin himself available for an interview with The Jewish Week. After his conviction in November, prosecutors indicated they would request a sentence of life in prison because of the dollar amount of the fraud. They cited also his “blatant lawlessness, utter lack of remorse, his egregious and repeated attempts to obstruct justice.” But during his closing arguments at a pre-sentence hearing April 29, U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan asked Judge Linda Reade for a sentence of 25 years to life.
The change followed strong objections by legal experts throughout the country who argued that the prosecutor had misinterpreted federal sentencing guidelines. In a letter to the judge, six former U.S. attorneys general, one former solicitor general and more than a dozen former United States attorneys were critical of “the government’s extreme sentencing position” and the “potentially severe injustice” that could result.
Defense attorney Guy Cook requested a sentence of not more than six years in prison.
Rubashkin, 50, told Reade at the April 29 hearing that if the judge went along with the prosecution’s request, such a sentence would be “comparable to death, a death sentence — or maybe worse. You only die once, and that’s it. So I’m asking for mercy. And a Jew, before he is going to be killed, he says something I’d like to say now. It’s a passage out of Deuteronomy proclaiming the unity of God.”
He then recited the Shema in both Hebrew and English.
Rubashkin’s arrest came just months after a May 2008 federal immigration raid at Agriprocessors that led to the arrest of 389 workers. About 300 of them pleaded guilty to charges of identity theft and most were sentenced to five months in prison and then ordered deported.
Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy several months later after Jewish community leaders raised questions about its operations. They maintained that a kosher product is one that must not only be prepared according to Jewish law but one in which working conditions and financial transactions of the plant must be beyond repute.
Rubashkin is in Iowa state court in Waterloo this week facing 83 counts of state child law violations. It is alleged that the violations — all misdemeanors — were committed over an eight-month period ending with the May 12 raid. The charges involved 32 minors — some younger than 16 — who were allegedly illegally hired, exposed to dangerous chemicals and who operated such heavy machinery as circular saws and meat grinders. If convicted on all charges, Rubashkin faces more than seven years in prison.
Leah Rubashkin said her husband is fighting those charges because “he had nothing to do with the hiring process.”
She said also that she had been to the Agriprocessors plant many times over the years and never saw anyone working there who was obviously a child.
“I’m not saying that the kids were not that age,” she said. “I don’t know what age they are, and I’m not sure they themselves know because they have given five or six different birthdays in different government paperwork.”
She said her husband had found running the business very “stressful … so great it brought him to tears; he didn’t know what to do. He was trying to bring it all together. He felt very responsible for all the families who worked at Agriprocessors.
“Before the [2008 immigration] raid, 900 people worked there. That’s 900 families who were relying on this business to move forward. He took that responsibility seriously and did everything he could to keep all the bills paid and to keep everything in check. It was very stressful.”
At the pre-sentencing hearing, Rubashkin told Reade that he was “really sorry for what happened, what I have done.” He said he had “learned a lot about myself from this terrible experience. … I basically am a conflicted and flawed human being.
“I allowed myself to be drafted into the family business … against my wishes and better judgment,” he continued. “I basically should have continued my life as a teacher and an emissary [for Chabad Lubavitch]. And I guess I’m flawed in my efforts that I tried to make affordable and quality kosher meat available to everybody, to all the Jews, and I basically lost my way. I made mistakes — a lot of them. And I hope your Honor recognizes the human frailty.”
Rubashkin then went on to “apologize to my community, and especially my dear wife and children.”
The Rubashkins have been married 28 years and have 10 children ranging in age from 6 to 27. Their 16-year-old, Moishe, is autistic and Leah Rubashkin said her husband’s imprisonment for much of the last year has been hard on the child.
“Something has been ripped away from him and he can’t associate his feelings with what’s going on,” she said. “So it’s been especially rough on him because Sholom has such a strong bond with him. Thankfully he [Sholom] has phone privileges where he can speak with the kids every night.
Federal prosecutors have dropped all charges against her father in-law, Aaron Rubashkin, the founder of Agriprocessors.
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