SIOUX FALLS, S.D. --- Sholom Rubashkin's supporters flooded a federal courthouse today to pray for a man they described as generous and warm-hearted.
Scores of Chabad-Lubavitch Jews crowded into the Sioux Falls courthouse with psalm books and whispered prayers for the ousted top executive at Agriprocessors Inc., in Postville.
"Everyone who knows him, knows him as a great man," said Eli Ezer Pinson, 21, who took 24-hour bus ride from Brooklyn to show his support. "People look up to him. He always made time for everyone."
Today marks the first day of a federal fraud trial expected to last four to six weeks. Rubashkin faces 91 charges - bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud and others - in the first of two trials.
The second trial on 72 immigration-related charges will start one week after the first trial ends. Rubashkin has pleaded not guilty.
Agriprocessors was the site of a May 2008 immigration raid that gutted the work force and pushed the kosher meat plant into bankruptcy. Prosecutors also alleged that Rubashkin cheated the plant's lender with false financial papers, so he could obtain advances on a $35 million loan.
More than 40 young men, most in their 20s, huddled around a big-screen television in a spillover room to watch. Some recited psalms in Hebrew. A black fedora, filled with crinkled dollar bills, passed from hand to hand.
Pinson, who studied in Postville for two years, said Rubashkin paid all of his expenses to attend the Yeshiva of Northeast Iowa, a Jewish high school in Postville. Rubashkin's nephew, Yossi Rubashkin of Brooklyn, sat in quiet prayer for the man "whose door was always open."
Four young men behind him slept with their heads on a table, exhausted from the overnight journey and the eight-day Simchas Torah holiday of dancing and celebration.
"I'm extremely optimistic about the trial," Yossi Rubashkin said. "That might not make sense to you. It's just faith. Faith in God."
Sholom Rubashkin sat quietly with his lawyers, his wife Leah and 10 children behind him. His oldest daughter, Roza, walked the halls cradling an infant.
Shortly before 11 a.m., Leah Rubashkin wandered into the downstairs room filled with supporters. She smiled, waved and said, "I wanted to see how everyone was doing."
Day one began with prosecutors and defense lawyers weeding through a pool of 60 potential jurors. The trial, expected to last four to six weeks, was moved from Cedar Rapids to Sioux Falls because of pre-trial publicity. Opening arguments in the case could begin this afternoon.
Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams named about 80 witnesses that prosecutors might call for their case.
Included on the list was Elizabeth Billmeyer, who worked as the plant's human resources director; Toby Bensassion, a former comptroller; and two midlevel managers, Juan Carlos Guerrero Espinoza and Martin De La Rosa. All pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the build-up to the trial.
Defense lawyer Guy Cook said his team might call Joe Sarachek, the plant's bankruptcy trustee; Ron Wahls, Postville schools guidance counselor; and former Agriprocessors spokesman Chaim Abrahams.
Lawyers had whittled the jury pool to about 50 as of noon. Jury selection will continue this afternoon.
By JENS MANUEL KROGSTAD
Courier Staff Writer
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Jury selection begins today for the federal trial of former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin, who faces 163 counts of immigration, bank fraud, wire fraud and mail fraud charges.
The trial begins 17 months after federal immigration agents conducted what was then the largest single-site immigration raid in history in Postville. Authorities arrested 389 undocumented workers at Agriprocessors, then the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country.
Rubashkin pleaded not guilty. He awaits a maximum 1,995-year sentence if convicted on all charges.
The trial will be split in two parts: Rubashkin will first face 91 fraud charges, followed by 72 immigration charges. Each trial could last up to six weeks.
Brent Beebe, Hosam Amara and Zeev Levi, lower-level managers at the plant, also face charges related to employing illegal immigrants. Beebe's trial will begin next year. Levi and Amara remain at large.
U.S. District Judge Linda Reade moved the trial to Sioux Falls, S.D., last month. Reade said she didn't believe Rubashkin could receive a fair trial in Iowa because of extensive media coverage.
Defense attorney Guy Cook said Rubashkin is "thankful for the court ruling changing venue. The ruling gives him a chance at a fair trial." He declined to comment further, citing ethics rules. Government prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment.
Last November, Agriprocessors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Several attempts to sell the plant in the following months failed.
In July, Canadian plastics manufacturer Hershey Friedman and his son-in-law, Daniel Hirsch, bought the plant for $8.5 million.
They formed a new company in Iowa, SHF Industries, for the purchase. The plant, now called Agri-Star, remains a kosher facility.
Two weeks, ago Agriprocessors' former chief financial officer pleaded guilty to conspiring to make false statements to a bank to obtain advances on a loan. Mitchell Meltzer of Postville faces a maximum five-year prison sentence, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.
Rubashkin and his father, Abraham Aaron Rubashkin, as well as the three former human resources employees, face more than 9,000 counts of Iowa child labor law violations. The trial is scheduled to begin in January.
In Rubashkin's trial beginning today, the government will try to prove directed employees to create invoices and bills for sales that never happened, thereby inflating sales figures in Agriprocessors' accounting system and allowing the company to borrow against an artificial base.
Prosecutors also have accused Rubashkin of laundering more than $1 million and failing to pay livestock providers on time. He faces charges of bank fraud, giving false financial statements and mail and wire fraud.
The case hinges on the government's ability to prove, among other things, that Rubashkin intended to defraud the bank that made loans to Agriprocessors and that he profited from the proceeds of illegal transactions. His attorney has said Rubashkin considers the indictments "continued overreaching by the government" that began with the raid.
The trial is expected to last between four and six weeks. Rubashkin has been on supervised release since February.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.