A federal jury in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday acquitted poultry giant Tyson Foods of smuggling undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America to work at its processing plants in the United States.
The verdict -- on the first day of deliberations -- was a blow to the federal government, which had never before brought immigrant-smuggling charges against a company of Tyson’s size.
“We are extremely gratified by the jury’s decision,” said Greg Lee, chief administrative officer at Tyson, the world’s largest maker of poultry products. “The verdict confirms that Tyson Foods has made a concerted effort to hire properly and abide by the law. We will continue our efforts to make sure each person we hire has proper documentation.”
Also acquitted were two Tyson supervisors -- Robert Hash, a divisional vice president, and Keith Snyder, who manages a Tyson complex in Noel, Mo. -- and a retired executive, Gerald Lankford.
The decision capped a seven-week trial that featured secretly taped conversations between U.S. immigration agents posing as smugglers and Tyson plant managers placing orders for more workers, mainly at a facility in Shelbyville, Tenn. The government said the conversations showed that Tyson management engaged in a policy of bringing undocumented workers to fill jobs for which it could not find willing American workers.
Two former managers who also were charged reached plea agreements with the government and testified that the company was aware that managers were hiring workers who lacked documents. A sixth Tyson supervisor was charged but committed suicide.
Tyson argued during the trial that the plant managers who made those arrangements were acting on their own, in violation of strict company policies that forbid the hiring of anyone without papers to work legally.
“What the verdict says is that this company has done what it says at all times,” said Tom Green, a lawyer who represented the Springdale, Ark.-based poultry company.
Harry S. Mattice Jr., the U.S. attorney for eastern Tennessee, acknowledged that the verdict was an unhappy end to a high-profile case that began with a 36-count indictment in December 2001. The prosecution also was unusual because the government was seeking to seize millions of dollars in Tyson assets that prosecutors said represented ill-gotten gains.
“We respect the verdict,” Mattice said. “Obviously it was a disappointment because we felt we had a strong case, but it’s the prerogative of the jury to make the final decision.” Mattice added: “Verdict notwithstanding, if I had to do it all over again, I would do the same thing.”
The indictments stemmed from an undercover investigation in which two U.S. Border Patrol agents posing as smugglers transported 154 immigrants with fraudulent documents to six Tyson plants. The indictment included charges going back to 1994.
Prosecutors asserted that the company hired undocumented workers as part of a strategy during the 1990s to maintain production levels without raising pay. They said the firm sought to deflect attention by joining a test program offered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that enabled companies to check by computer whether an applicant was authorized to work in the United States.
The company said its enforcement efforts were sincere and it blamed the INS for launching an undercover investigation at a time when Tyson officials were cooperating.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Green said the “bad guys” were Tyson employees who already had pleaded guilty and concealed their activities from higher-ups at Tyson. He said the company could not be held responsible for the problem of illegal immigration.
“It was very ironic that while the company was cooperating, they were being investigated by an undercover operation, which was simply opposite of what they thought,” Green said after the verdict. “They thought they had a cooperative relationship with the INS.”
Times researcher Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.