By Andrew Nusca
December 21, 2017

The White House announced on Wednesday that President Donald Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the former executive of what was once the United States’ largest kosher meatpacking operation.

Trump’s action neither vacates Rubashkin’s conviction nor relieves him of other restrictions concerning his sentence, including supervised release and restitution. So why did Trump do it?

According to the White House, because Rubashkin’s 27-year sentence, while warranted, was too harsh relative to crimes of a similar nature. That view was supported by legislators in both parties, including Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and three former U.S. attorneys general.

Rubashkin, 57, ran what was America’s largest kosher meat-processing company: Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa. The company’s facilities were raided in 2008 under accusations of immigration violations and worker exploitation at a time of increased enforcement of illegal labor during the Bush administration. In 2009 Rubashkin was convicted of 86 counts of federal bank fraud related to loans to the company, said to be part of a complex accounting scheme to pay workers off the books.

Supporters (including the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Judaism) have long argued Rubashkin’s sentence was considered severe compared to cases such as Enron’s Jeff Skilling (24 years for fraud that cost shareholders $11 billion; later vacated) and WorldCom’s Brenie Ebbers (25 years for a multibillion-dollar accounting scandal).

Meanwhile critics have pointed to allegations from hundreds of undocumented immigrants that Rubashkin fostered a hostile workplace that included 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and sexual harassment. (A jury acquitted Rubashkin in state court of 67 misdemeanor child labor law violations in 2010.) Former workers could not testify about the alleged exploitation as Rubashkin was not tried in federal court on immigration charges.

The Obama administration rebuffed arguments in favor of Rubashkin, and in January, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Linda Reade rejected Rubashkin’s request for a shorter sentence and criticized his legal representation for embellishing its claims of government wrongdoing.

The Trump administration felt differently about the executive. “Mr. Rubashkin has now served more than 8 years of that sentence,” the White House said in its statement, “which many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.”

Rubashkin was released Wednesday from the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, N.Y.

This is the second instance of Trump using his clemency powers since taking office; his first was pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court after defying judicial orders to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. Common in both cases is the issue of illegal immigration, which Trump had earlier vowed to enforce more aggressively.

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