We are hopeful that a motion recently filed by lawyers for Sholom Rubashkin, former CEO of what at the time was the country’s largest purveyor of kosher meat, will result in a substantial reduction in the draconian sentence of 27 years in federal prison he received in 2009.
The 27-year figure was ostensibly based on the provisions of the standard recommended federal sentencing guidelines judges ordinarily look to when imposing prison time for financial crimes – the greater the greater amount taken, the greater the prison sentence – although they frequently choose an upward or downward departure from the prescribed times.
Mr. Rubashkin was convicted of bank fraud and money laundering. He was said to have caused the banks he did business with to suffer $27 million in losses when he was unable to fully pay back loans he fraudulently obtained. And his sentence was based on the sentencing judge’s interpretation of the guidelines.
But his lawyers now say that federal prosecutors improperly made it impossible for Mr. Rubashkin to repay all of his loans. They say the prosecutors caused the value of his company to go down from $40 million to $8.5 million by intimidating potential buyers and not allowing experienced members of the Rubashkin family to work for any new owner – a very big selling point.
Had he been able to take an offer of $40 million offered by one investor, he would have been in a position to pay back substantially more of the loans and his recommended sentence would have been roughly three years.
Although these issues have been raised before, they were dismissed when prosecutors denied any purposeful efforts to deflate the selling price. However, Mr. Rubashkin’s lawyers say they have located “overwhelming evidence” of prosecutorial misconduct in the form of records of intimidation of buyers and the “no Rubashkins” policy – both leading to the substantial reduction in the sale value of Mr. Rubashkin’s company and causing a radical increase in his recommended sentence.
Indeed, one potential buyer, echoing several others, said in an affidavit that prosecutors were threatening and hostile to them: “We ultimately decided not to purchase the business, in large part because of the threats from the government.”
Sholom Rubashkin has already served about seven years of his 27-year sentence. His lawyers have presented strong arguments – at least on their face –that he should have drawn a term of approximately three years. In any event, he was given a sentence that stands out among those imposed for similar economic crimes.
We are hopeful the court will take this opportunity to see to it that the sentence is substantially reduced. But we would also suggest that perhaps it is time for the prosecuting authorities to reflect on what has been wrought here.
It cannot be ignored that Mr. Rubashkin’s company was a principal target of PETA, which alleged that his company systemically mistreated animals. He was in the middle of a fierce battle with a local labor union. His company was accused of mistreating its immigrant workers. A “kosher standards” commission of the Conservative Jewish movement targeted his company, claiming it could not be considered kosher because such matters as its policies on employee vacations, hourly wages, and coffee breaks did not meet the commission’s own preferences.
In sum, he was an easy and inviting target. Indeed, it is no small thing that the current Rubashkin motion is supported by former federal judges and U.S. attorneys general and that his earlier efforts to get the Supreme Court to review his case were supported by no fewer than 80 former federal judges.
James Reynolds, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, where the Rubashkin prosecution took place, has labeled the prosecutors’ actions “insidious.” He went on to say 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.”