As a federal judge in Iowa prepares to sentence the orthodox Jewish owner of what once was the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, ABC News has learned the details of a quiet campaign to paint his fraud prosecution as "mean-spirited" and the recommended life sentence as "vindictive and excessive."
Five former U.S. Attorneys General have written letters to the judge in defense of the plant owner, Sholom Rubashkin. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr has penned an op-ed in the Des Moines Register deriding the proposed life sentence for a fraud that paled in scope to Bernie Madoff's $65 billion, decades-long Ponzi scheme. And the Anti-Defamation League, among others, wrote to the Justice Department with alarm about "troubling" signs that prosecutors deemed Rubashkin a flight risk merely by virtue of the fact that he is Jewish, and thus could escape to Israel.
"Our sense is that the call for a life sentence is completely disproportionate," said Alyza D. Lewin, Rubashkin's attorney, in an interview. "This is a first-time, non-violent offender. He has 10 children. One of them is severely autistic. He has done tremendous charitable work. To suggest that his activities warrant life in prison, where you put murderers, people who represent an ongoing threat to society, it makes no sense."
Prosecutors reject the notion that Rubashkin is in any way a sympathetic figure, saying in sentencing documents that the meat packing mogul "cheated a bank and others out of a staggering amount of money - more than $26 million," and thus qualifies for a life sentence. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Northern Iowa told ABC News his office has been monitoring the campaign to influence the sentencing hearing, which is scheduled for Wednesday, and officials there are concerned by it.
"There seems to be an orchestrated effort to spread misinformation and raise people's concerns falsely about this case," said Bob Tig, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Iowa. "We're seeing thousands of emails, we've seen recent letters by a former congressman. There's an insistent thread of misinformation that runs through all of it."
The campaign to characterize prosecutors as zealous and seed doubts about the fairness of a life sentence, overseen by Rubashkin's Washington, D.C., legal and public relations teams, has enlisted help from five of the nation's former top law enforcement officials, Attorneys General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach (President Johnson), Ramsey Clark (Johnson), Edwin Meese III (President Reagan), Dick Thornburgh (Reagan), and William Barr (George H.W. Bush). Help for Rubashkin has come from both sides of the political aisle, even though his political giving largely focused on Republican candidates and causes.
Rubashkin's attorney said that the reason these officials have been willing to attach their names to this cause are clear – proposing a life sentence for a $26 million fraud case appears by most measures to be a disproportionate sentence, just the latest example of what she called unfair treatment of her client.
Indeed, the behind-the-scenes campaign is the latest strange twist in a case that has been unusual from the start.