WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world's largest poultry processors, and six current or former officials in connection with a far-reaching conspiracy to recruit illegal workers from Mexico and transport them to 15 Tyson plants in the Midwest and South.
In what immigration officials said is the biggest case of its kind, Tyson is accused of not only failing to check the credentials of illegal workers but also allegedly reaching out to exploit them and knowingly helping to provide them with false Social Security cards and other documentation.
James Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the 36-count indictment "represents the first time INS has taken action against a company of Tyson's magnitude."
Tyson Foods responded that the charges were "limited to a few managers who were acting outside of company policy." Four have been fired and two others were placed on administrative leave, the company said.
In a statement, Tyson vigorously denied the government's central allegation: that the company had conspired to smuggle illegal workers. "The prosecutor's claim in this indictment of a corporate conspiracy is absolutely false," it said.
Arkansas-based Tyson Foods was founded by Donald Tyson, a longtime friend and political supporter of former President Clinton. It has more than 120,000 employees and annual sales of $10.75 billion. The undercover investigation that led to Wednesday's indictments--filed by a grand jury in the Eastern District of Tennessee, where a large Tyson plant is located--began 18 months before Clinton left office.
In recent years, federal officials have brought similar charges, on a much smaller scale, against hotel and restaurant chains in Arizona and Texas for actively recruiting illegal workers. Those cases resulted in guilty pleas and millions of dollars in fines against the companies, officials said.
The Tyson case, Ziglar said, means that "companies, regardless of size, are on notice that INS is committed to enforcing compliance with immigration laws and protecting America's work force."
Immigration officials said that, upon conviction, asset forfeiture provisions in federal law could result in fines exceeding $100 million against Tyson Foods, based on allegedly illegal profits derived from lower wages paid to the workers and the company's willful exploitation of them.
Michael Chertoff, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, said the indictment follows a 2 1/2-year undercover investigation by INS agents. The case was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Tennessee.
The grand jury charged that Tyson officials, beginning in 1994, conspired to import and transport illegal workers from the Southwest border to Tyson plants across the country. Fifteen of Tyson's 57 plants have been implicated, Chertoff said.
The Justice Department "is committed to vigorously investigating and prosecuting companies or individuals who exploit immigrants and violate our nation's immigration laws," he said. "The bottom line on the corporate balance sheet is no excuse for criminal conduct."
The indictment indicates that the government's case is largely based on the cooperation of Amador Anchondo-Rascon, a Mexican citizen and legal U.S. resident. The grand jury said that while working for Tyson, Anchondo-Rascon "functioned as an illegal recruiter, smuggler and coordinator of transportation for illegal aliens and a trafficker in fraudulent documents."
These documents included false Social Security cards and California identification cards for the workers from Mexico, the indictment said. Anchondo-Rascon was listed as a co-conspirator, but he was not indicted and presumably was given immunity for his testimony, according to legal experts.
He allegedly referred to himself as "jefe de jefes"--the "boss of the bosses," the grand jury said.
According to the indictment, INS undercover agents of Mexican descent, acting at the direction of Tyson managers, picked up illegal immigrants at the border and transported them to Tyson plants. The agents accepted payment for this service from the company "in the form of official Tyson corporate checks, which fraudulently represented such payments as legitimate 'recruitment' expenses,' " the indictment said.
The scheme allegedly started in October 1994, when Gerald Lankford, then a Tyson executive, referred to production problems at a Shelbyville, Tenn., plant and told subordinates, "That plant needs more Mexicans."
In succeeding months, the grand jury said, defendants Truley Ponder, Robert Hash and Keith Snyder "began hiring illegal Mexican and other aliens in increasing numbers."
Four years later--in March 1998--a human resources manager told executives at a meeting at the company's headquarters in Springdale, Ark., "Never ever admit hiring illegals," according to minutes of the meeting obtained by prosecutors.
Wiretapped phone calls provided more evidence of the conspiracy, according to the indictment.
In an interview, an official of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents many Tyson employees, said Wednesday that, while he had no information about the current case, "our union in the past decade has called repeatedly for U.S. prosecutors to take action regarding the recruiting and importing of illegals that is widespread in the packing and poultry industries."
The official, Greg Denier, said many companies "exempt themselves from U.S. labor and immigration laws by reaching a greedy hand across the border to exploit people to work in their plants."