Trial gets start for Tyson Foods

Thursday, February 6, 2003

The Associated Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.-- A greed-driven plot that reached the top levels of Tyson Foods used illegal immigrants smuggled into the country to keep poultry plants running, a prosecutor said as the company's federal conspiracy trial opened Wednesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney John MacCoon said secret tape recordings would help him prove the conspiracy started in 1994 after plant managers had difficulty hiring legal help at low wages. He said company officials turned to a shadowy pipeline of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

"This trial is about corporate greed," MacCoon said. He said illegal workers at Tyson plants in Shelbyville and Wilkesboro, N.C., at one point outnumbered legitimate employees.

Tyson's attorney, Tom Green, said any hiring of illegal immigrants was done by a few plant managers and was not known to executives at Tyson headquarters in Springdale, Ark.

"No one in senior management knew," Green said. "No member of senior management ever violated immigration laws or encouraged" anyone else to do so.

Green told jurors to expect one or more former Tyson employees to testify: "Hopefully, I will get them to admit they did this on their own."

A December 2001 indictment accuses Tyson and three company officials of taking part in a conspiracy in which illegal workers were smuggled to plants in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Arkansas.

Tyson attorneys turned down a government demand for $100 million to have the charges dismissed. They have also accused the government of using undercover agents to entrap Tyson employees.

MacCoon said he would prove the conspiracy through secretly recorded conversations between undercover agents and Tyson managers, and through the testimony of two former Tyson managers who have struck plea-bargain deals.

Border Patrol agent Benjamin Maldonado told jurors he posed as an immigrant smuggler and was introduced to "various Tyson managers." He described 26 deliveries of illegal immigrants to Tyson plants in six states.

Maldonado said he was introduced in 1997 to Shelbyville store owner Amador Anchondo-Rascon, a former Tyson employee. Anchondo-Rascon has said Tyson managers asked him to supply them with illegal immigrants, complete with fake identification.

Maldonado said Anchondo-Rascon told him they could make a lot of money through a "connection with a Tyson manager in North Carolina."

MacCoon said Tyson sought illegal immigrants because they "would work for low wages and never complain -- no matter how much they were exploited."

He described the Shelbyville plant as "the proving ground of a nationwide conspiracy by Tyson." Shelbyville has Tennessee's highest percentage of Hispanic residents -- 8 percent, according to the 2000 Census.

Green said the company was obeying immigration laws. He said that during the government's undercover investigation, the company was also being investigated for employment discrimination complaints. He said the company was not "causing people to use false documents" to get jobs.

In addition to the company, the defendants include Gerald Lankford, 63, of North Wilkesboro, N.C., a former human relations manager; and two Tyson executives on administrative leave, Robert Hash, 49, of Greenwood, Ark.; and Keith Snyder, 42, of Bella Vista, Ark.

Attorneys for Lankford, Hash and Snyder told jurors their clients took part in no conspiracies and never knowingly hired illegal workers.

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