NEW YORK (JTA) – Agriprocessors, the embattled operator of a much-criticized kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, has appointed a Long Island tax attorney who formerly represented the company in a fraud lawsuit as its new chief executive officer.
With Bernard Feldman’s hire, the troubled company has dodged at least one bullet: suspension of its kosher certification by the Orthodox Union. The kosher agency had threatened earlier this month to suspend certification if new management wasn’t hired within two weeks.
The O.U. issued its ultimatum after Iowa’s attorney general filed a criminal complaint against the company’s owner, Aaron Rubashkin, his son and three other officials alleging more than 9,000 counts of child labor law violations.
The O.U. has welcomed Feldman’s appointment.
“I believe that Agriprocessors serves a vital function to the Orthodox community and others who are in need of acquiring glatt kosher food,” Feldman told JTA in an interview the day his appointment was announced. “I have had a good relationship with the family, the Rubashkins, for some period of time. And at their request I have agreed to come in and assist them.”
Feldman, 63, takes the helm as problems continue to mount for Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher meat producer until a federal immigration raid on May 12 led to the arrest of more than one-third of its workforce. Besides the child labor charges, the first criminal charges to be brought against Agriprocessors’ senior management, former and replacement workers have accused the company of everything from tolerating sexual harassment to shorting employees on pay.
Agriprocessors has steadfastly denied wrongdoing and said it is looking forward to its day in court. Feldman told JTA he believes the company has been unfairly maligned.
“To the best of my knowledge, there was no abuse of the kind that has been alleged,” Feldman said. “The question of underage employment in my mind is in serious doubt. And I firmly believe, based upon my present familiarity with the situation, that none of the ownership or the family has any direct or indirect culpability or responsibility to any of these allegations, which I ultimately believe will not be sustained in a court.”
Feldman has longstanding ties to the Rubashkin family, whom he defended in the Allou Distributors case, in which unexplained payments were made to Agriprocessors and its affiliates by a New York firm whose executives pleaded guilty to defrauding investors. Agriprocessors paid $1.4 million to settle the case.
Feldman’s expertise is in corporate reorganization, and he has never worked in the kosher meat industry. He will retain his New York residency while working for the company, though he said he intends to spend “the major part of the next several months” in Iowa.
“The first thing I would like is to restore Agriprocessors to the prominence that it once enjoyed,” Feldman said. “I am here to oversee and ensure that the record-keeping of the company is in full compliance with all existing rules and regulations. Toward that end, I anticipate working closely with other professionals and experts that exist and will be brought on board to accomplish it. Because of our decreased production since the May raid, one of my primary goals is to resupply the plant with qualified, productive employees. I further intend to revamp the present financial structure so that we can create a positive cash flow.”
Feldman said he would remain in the position as long as necessary to accomplish those objectives.
Feldman also said he had not yet “formalized” the future role in the company of Sholom Rubashkin, Aaron’s son and the plant’s former top manager, though he said Sholom’s role would be “severely diminished.” Sholom Rubashkin’s ouster was announced within days of the immigration raid and his replacement was a condition of the O.U.’s continued certification.
“Despite the various allegations that exist against him, and despite all of the negative publicity that has been aimed at him, I believe that he and other family members are still the most qualified to run and operate a plant of this nature,” Feldman said. “However, because of the negativity that exists, I will utilize him initially to bring me up to speed and then I do not believe that his presence is going to be as prominent as it has in the past.”
Feldman also said the company would be hiring a new human resources manager. Elizabeth Billmeyer, who held the position at the time of the raid, was one of the defendants named in the child labor case by the Iowa attorney general. Feldman said Billmeyer was still in the company’s employ, but the new CEO would not specify her current role.
The O.U. issued a statement Sept. 18 welcoming Feldman’s appointment and calling him “an independent professional” and wishing him well. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the union’s head of kosher supervision, called the hiring “credible and wise” and said he was not concerned about Feldman’s lack of kosher industry experience or his past ties to the Rubashkins.
“I think he has the right credentials for what’s required,” Genack said. “We look forward to working with him.”