President Trump commutes sentence of Iowa meatpacking executive

  • Mitch Smith
  • The New York Times
Dec 21, 2017
Matthew Putney/AP
In this June 7, 2010, file photo former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin appears at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo, Iowa. President Donald Trump on Dec. 20, 2017, commuted the prison sentence of Rubashkin, a Iowa kosher meatpacking executive sentenced to 27 years in prison for money laundering — the first time he's used the presidential power. The decision to intervene on behalf of Rubashkin, who ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the country's largest kosher meat-processing company, came at the urging of multiple members of Congress and other high-ranking officials who argued Rubashkin's sentence was too harsh, the White House said.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, whose Iowa meatpacking plant was the target of a huge immigration raid in 2008, and whose 27-year prison sentence angered many Orthodox Jews. 

Rubashkin made national headlines nine years ago after federal agents arrived by helicopter at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, and detained nearly 400 unauthorized immigrants, including several children, who were working there. Rubashkin was the company’s chief executive, and the plant had been the largest kosher meatpacking operation in the country. He was later convicted of bank fraud in federal court. 

Many Jewish leaders have rallied behind Rubashkin, whose treatment they said was unfair, perhaps even anti-Semitic, and whose sentence they considered unduly harsh and out of line with what other white-collar criminals received. Rubashkin had tried for years to get a reduced sentence, but was repeatedly turned down by the courts. 

“Rubashkin has remained strong throughout his ordeal and convinced he would eventually obtain justice,” said Guy R. Cook, the lead trial lawyer for Rubashkin, in an email Wednesday night. “Rubashkin and his family are overjoyed he is free and will be reunited with them.” 

In a statement announcing the commutation, White House officials said they had received letters from more than 30 members of Congress, including several members of both parties, supporting an examination of the case. 

“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 White House statement said. 

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on Twitter that the commutation was “a real Hanukkah miracle” and that he was “proud to be a part of a large, bipartisan group” that had pushed for that outcome. 

Trump’s decision was not a pardon, and Rubashkin, who had been imprisoned in Otisville, New York, must still pay restitution and complete a term of supervised release. The commutation came after years of lobbying by a number of prominent lawyers and politicians who considered the sentence a miscarriage of justice. 

Alan M. Dershowitz, an emeritus law professor at Harvard and a noted author, said he had been working on the case for about five years and had personally asked Trump to consider commutation. Dershowitz said he had made a similar request to Barack Obama during his presidency, but that he had declined. 

“It was just compassion and justice,” Dershowitz said. “This was a bipartisan thing. It was a nonpartisan thing. And it was the right thing to do.” 

But the commutation was not universally cheered. Robert Teig, a former federal prosecutor in Iowa, said that Rubashkin’s sentence “was what he earned because of his conduct” and that “it’s a sad state when politics are allowed to interfere with the justice system.” 

“Really, this is 180 degrees contrary to a tough position on illegal immigration,” said Teig, who said Rubashkin had probably been Iowa’s largest employer of unauthorized immigrants. 

The high-profile immigration raid eventually led to the closure of the meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, which had become an unlikely hub of Orthodox Jewish life in the Midwest. 

Around 300 employees of the plant, many of whom were Guatemalan, served prison sentences for identity theft, and several managers and supervisors were convicted of felony charges of harboring immigrants in the country illegally. The immigration-related charges against Rubashkin were dropped after he was convicted of fraud. Prosecutors in his case said he had fabricated collateral for loans, causing the banks to lose more than $26 million.