When it comes to criminal prosecutions, the end never justifies the means.
Prosecutors who take shortcuts in winning convictions or lengthy sentences are not only violating the rights of the accused, they’re also undermining our entire system of justice.
That’s worth remembering when considering the ongoing legal battle over the 27-year prison sentence handed down to Sholom Rubashkin, the former head of Postiville’s Agriprocessors slaughterhouse.
In 2009, Rubashkin was convicted of bank fraud and money laundering.
On its face, the lengthy prison sentence seems entirely justified. Rubashkin not only hired hundreds of illegal immigrants, he helped provide them with phony identification documents.
He also defrauded his lenders, in part by laundering money through other businesses he controlled.
He gave $4,000 to a co-conspirator and encouraged him to flee the country. He told potential government witnesses he would pay them a “salary” during any time they spent in prison. He engaged in the wholesale destruction of evidence, even while on pretrial release, and he never acknowledged any criminal wrongdoing or expressed any remorse for his actions.
But now a letter signed by more than 100 individuals including federal judges and four former U.S. attorneys general — alleges that prosecutors in the case acted improperly.
The letter comes four years after 80 former federal judges asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rubashkin’s appeal, and it coincides with court pleadings that claim prosecutors improperly inflated Rubashkin’s sentence.
Agriprocessors was the nation’s largest kosher-meat company, with more than $68 million in assets, when immigration officials raided the plant in 2008. The company filed for bankruptcy six months later, and was eventually sold for far less than had been anticipated.
Rubashkin’s attorneys blame federal prosecutors for the low sale price, which they say resulted in Agriprocessors’ lenders losing tens of millions of dollars, which in turn led to Rubashkin getting a longer prison sentence.
Specifically, the lawyers argue that prosecutors attempted to ensure that none of the defendant’s family members were connected to potential buyers of Agriprocessors, and warned prospective buyers of dire consequences if any Rubashkins were involved in the purchase. Several bidders say prosecutors were threatening and hostile toward them. “We ultimately decided not to purchase the business, in large part because of the threats from the government,” one potential buyer said in a sworn affidavit.
In court documents, prosecutors contend their statements “were not contrived threats designed to diminish the value” of Agriprocessors, but were warnings intended to alert potential buyers of the risks they’d face by associating with criminals.
Plainly put, that argument is hard to swallow, but what matters here isn’t so much the prosecutors’ motives as the effect of their actions. Did they, intentionally or otherwise, ratchet up the losses sustained by Agriprocessors’ creditors and later use those losses to increase Rubashkin’s sentence?
And did they adopt a policy of guilt-by-association in barring any member of the Rubashkin family including people never accused of wrongdoing from involvement in Agriprocessor’s successor?
The evidence indicates they did just that, which helps to explain why so many well-respected former prosecutors and judges are up in arms over their actions.
James Reynolds, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, calls the prosecutors’ actions “insidious” “and says that “had this kind of unfair, underhanded and unnecessary misconduct occurred during my tenure, you can be absolutely certain that the perpetrators would have faced consequences, the very least of which would have been the loss of their job.”
Rubashkin’s 27-year prison sentence can be justified any number of ways — but not if prosecutorial misconduct was involved. Just as the head of Agriprocessors was forced to answer for his crimes, the U.S. Attorney’s Office should be forced to answer for its actions in USA vs. Rubashkin.