- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) A federal jury acquitted Tyson Foods and three managers yesterday of hiring illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America as part of a nationwide conspiracy to boost production and profits.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for less than a day before returning its verdict.
"The verdict confirms that Tyson Foods made a concerted effort to hire properly and abide by the law," company spokesman Gary Michelson said in a statement handed out immediately after the verdict was announced.
"While we're pleased with today's verdict, it's unfortunate that Tyson Foods and our team members were needlessly subjected to this ordeal," Mr. Michelson said.
The government's case stemmed from a four-year investigation that had undercover agents posing as immigrant smugglers. Among evidence presented to jurors were hundreds of secretly recorded conversations between the agents and managers at Tyson poultry plants.
Tyson attorneys denied there was any conspiracy, contending that the government's investigation involved only a few plant managers who independently violated the Springdale, Ark.-based company's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal hiring.
"It was frustrating," U.S. Attorney Harry "Sandy" Mattice Jr. said of the verdict. Mr. Mattice was not the lead prosecutor on the case but was in the courtroom when the jury delivered its verdict.
"We are consoled by the fact that we did the right thing by bringing this prosecution," Mr. Mattice said.
Jurors said the prosecution case wasn't convincing.
"We felt like the government didn't properly present its case. There were a lot of loopholes left in it," said juror Debra Goldston, 43, of Cleveland, Tenn.
The December 2001 indictment charged six managers and the company. One defendant fatally shot himself.
Two others, Spencer Mabe and Truley Ponder, made plea agreements in January and testified for the government that they were doing what the company demanded when they went along with hiring illegal immigrant workers at the Tyson plant in Shelbyville.
Miss Goldston said it was obvious there had been wrongdoing by some of the former managers.
"We didn't feel like there was any wrongdoing by the defendants brought before us," she said.
Juror Barbara Hailey, 46, of Chattanooga said the panel couldn't determine if there was a conspiracy that involved Tyson managers other than those who pleaded guilty.
"Nobody ever mentioned [the defendants] names. They were never recorded; they were not on any tapes," she said.
The government claimed a conspiracy that began in 1994 after Tyson managers had trouble hiring legal workers willing to take $7-an-hour poultry plant jobs.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Benito Maldonado told jurors how he and other undercover agents posing as smugglers delivered 136 illegal immigrants to Tyson plants in six states.
The three individual defendants testified they were unaware that illegal immigrants were being hired.
Tyson attorneys said the company and its managers were nothing more than victims of the government's imperfect system of screening immigrants.
Most of the charges in the 36-count indictment, including those that charged immigrants were smuggled into the country, had been dismissed by U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar before the case went to the jury. Remaining were charges of conspiracy, transporting illegal immigrants and fraudulent documents.
Robert Hash, 50, a regional vice president and the highest-ranking Tyson official on trial, had faced seven charges, including two conspiracy counts.
A single conspiracy charge had remained against plant manager Keith Snyder, 44. Another defendant, Gerald Lankford, 64, had been accused of conspiring to violate immigration laws and obstruct their enforcement.
The managers had faced jail time and fines if found guilty. Tyson faced millions of dollars in fines and loss of government contracts to supply the military, schools and other institutions if convicted.
Tyson, which produces about one-third of the nation's chicken, employs about 120,000 people at 300 plants and offices in 29 states and 22 countries. Last year, the company generated sales of more than $23 billion.

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