It was almost lunchtime inside the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, 2008. The meatpackers, mostly migrants from Guatemala and Mexico, wore earplugs to block out the noise of the machinery and couldn’t hear the two black helicopters hovering overhead or the hundreds of armed federal immigration agents closing in around them until the production line stopped. One worker tried to flee with his knives, stabbing himself in the leg when he was pushed to the ground. “They rounded us up toward the middle like a bunch of chickens,” a 42-year-old Guatemalan worker later recalled. “Those who were hiding were beaten and shackled.”
Nearly 400 workers were arrested in the bust, which cost $5 million and was then the biggest workplace immigration raid in US history. They were driven to the National Cattle Congress, a fairground in Waterloo, where several federal judges would handle their cases over nine business days. Hearings were held in trailers and a dance hall. Cots were set up for the defendants in a nearby gymnasium. At the time, undocumented immigrants caught in raids like this were usually charged with civil violations and then deported. But most of these defendants, shackled and dragging chains behind them, were charged with criminal fraud for using falsified work documents or Social Security numbers. About 270 people were sentenced to five months in federal prison, in a process that one witness described as a “judicial assembly line.”
Overseeing the process was Judge Linda R. Reade, the chief judge of the Northern District of Iowa. She defended the decision to turn a fairground into a courthouse, saying the proceedings were fair and unhurried. The incident sparked allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct and led to congressional hearings. Erik Camayd-Freixas, an interpreter who had worked at the Waterloo proceedings, testified that most of the Spanish-speaking defendants had been pressured to plead guilty. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the unconventional process seemed “like a cattle auction, not a criminal prosecution in the United States of America.”
Yet amid the national attention, one fact didn’t make the news: Before and after the raid, Reade’s husband owned stock in two private prison companies, and he bought additional prison stock five days before the raid, according to Reade’s financial disclosure forms. Ethics experts say these investments were inappropriate and may have violated the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.
Reade, a former federal prosecutor and state judge, was appointed to the federal district court by President George W. Bush in 2003. At that time, her husband, Michael Figenshaw, owned stock in the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation as part of his retirement account. Now known as CoreCivic and GEO Group, respectively, these are the country’s largest prison companies, operating nearly 150 facilities and housing 150,000 inmates. Reade’s husband sold his prison stocks in February 2011, when they were collectively worth between $30,000 and $100,000, according to Reade’s financial disclosure documents, which list value ranges and not specific amounts. Between January 2003 and February 2011, CCA’s stock price went up by about 434 percent; GEO’s rose 642 percent.
Mother Jones learned of these prison investments from an independent investigator who was invited by former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann to look into the legal case of the Postville meatpacking plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin. Heymann is one of more than 100 former Justice Department officials who have called for the release of Rubashkin, whom Reade sentenced to 27 years in prison for financial fraud in a 2010 trial; the immigration charges against him were dropped.
Rubashkin’s lawyers argue that Reade should have recused herself from his case because of some of her activities before the raid. According to emails and memos from Immigration and Customs Enforcement later obtained by the defense attorneys, Reade repeatedly met with immigration officials and federal prosecutors in the months before the bust. In March 2008, Reade attended a meeting with officials from the US Attorney’s Office where “parties discussed an overview of charging strategies,” according to ICE memoranda cited in court documents. She learned that about 700 arrests were anticipated and, in the words of an ICE memo, “indicated full support for the initiative.” (Reade later denied expressing personal support for the raid.)
After these meetings, Reade and other court officials created “scripts” for the post-raid hearings that included model plea bargains for the as-yet uncharged defendants. “What I found most astonishing,” one defense attorney later wrote to a member of the House Judiciary Committee, “is that apparently Chief Judge Reade had already ratified these deals prior to one lawyer even talking to his or her client.” Camayd-Freixas says that although there were several judges at the hearings, “The entire proceedings were scripted” by Reade and court clerks.
Dozens of former Justice Department officials—including two former attorneys general, four former deputy attorneys general, and two former FBI directors—have argued that Reade should have recused herself from Rubashkin’s case because of her meetings with prosecutors before the raid. In 2012, Rubashkin’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, but the justices declined to review the case. In 2014, his lawyers again pushed for Reade to recuse herself after learning that her husband had been a senior partner at a law firm that had provided assistance to Rubashkin’s lawyers. Reade again declined to recuse herself, noting that her husband did not work on anything related to Rubashkin’s case.
Reade’s husband bought between $30,000 and $100,000 worth of additional CCA and GEO Group stock five days before the Postville raid, according to her financial disclosure forms. When he sold his prison stocks about five months later, they were collectively worth between $65,000 and $150,000. He bought more CCA stock in November 2008 and more GEO Group stock in March 2009 and held them until February 2011. (A request for Reade’s financial disclosures from 2013 to the present has not yet been fulfilled.) Reade’s disclosure forms show that she and her husband did not buy any other stocks during the month of the raid.
Federal judges may invest in stocks, but to guard against conflicts of interest, they are subject to a code of conduct overseen by the Judicial Conference, a policymaking body for the federal courts. Its code, mirrored in federal law, says judges should avoid “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” and should disqualify themselves from cases where their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” This includes situations where the judge or the judge’s spouse or dependent child “has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy…or any other interest that could be affected substantially by the outcome of the proceeding.” The code states that judges “should refrain from financial and business dealings that exploit the judicial position.”
At the time of the Postville raid, the Northern District of Iowa listed Reade’s husband’s investments on a web page detailing her financial conflicts of interest. Yet Rubashkin’s legal team only recently learned about the investments, according to his attorney Guy Cook. If the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals allows Rubashkin to continue fighting his conviction and his sentence, his lawyers hope to bring up the stock holdings in court.
It’s not clear how many of the Postville immigrants were sent to private prisons. The Bureau of Prisons does not publicly disclose where its former inmates were held, and a records request would require authorization from the defendants, many of whom were deported following their sentences. According to legal filings and BOP data compiled by Jeanette Smith, an immigration rights advocate based in Florida, most of the slaughterhouse workers were first sent to government-run prisons. Yet many of them were transferred between prisons several times, according to Camayd-Freixas, who stayed in touch with them and wrote a book about their treatment.
Some immigrants told Camayd-Freixas they were sent to Leavenworth, Kansas—home to both a government prison and a CCA/CoreCivic prison. According to BOP data and court documents, at least one spent time at a private facility in Texas operated by Cornell Companies (which merged with GEO Group in 2010). Sandra Sanchez, who directs an immigration advocacy program in Iowa, says family members of the immigrants told her that others were held in private prisons in Texas, Georgia, and California.
Justin Long, a BOP spokesman, says that when immigrants are convicted of federal crimes, they are often initially sent to government-run prisons for processing and classification before they are transferred to private prisons. Currently, 11 private prisons contract with the BOP; 9 are run by GEO Group or CoreCivic. At the time of the Iowa raid, Long says, most inmates at these private prisons were “sentenced criminal aliens” who faced the possibility of deportation, a description that would include the Postville immigrants. During the time of her husband’s investment, Reade heard the cases of more than 100 immigrants charged with federal crimes, not including the immigrants from Postville.
While Reade’s husband held CCA and GEO Group stock, Reade did not rule on cases directly involving the companies. Nevertheless, ethics experts say the prison investments raise the appearance of impropriety because they might cause a reasonable person to question whether her judgment was affected by her personal interests. “I am uneasy about the perception problem created when a judge may be financially vested in more people going to prison when she has defendants coming before her for sentencing every week,” says Charles Gardner Geyh, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “The judge shouldn’t have any significant financial incentives for a longer sentence or a shorter sentence, or financial incentives to approve a very large raid or to disapprove a very large raid,” says former Deputy Attorney General Heymann, now a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School. “A judge is supposed to have no financial incentives that could affect or might appear to affect her actions in any substantial way.”
Mother Jones was not able to determine which prisons all of the convicted defendants who came before Reade between 2003 and 2011 were sent to. A partial review of court documents shows that most initially went to government-run facilities. In at least 31 cases, defendants who appeared before Reade were held in private prisons during the time her husband owned private prison stock. In 2005, the US Marshals Service detained Christopher Myers at the CCA prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, after he was indicted for mailing threatening letters to the president. That year, as his case continued, he asked Reade for a transfer to another facility because he said he didn’t have access to legal supplies; she denied his request, writing that the problem of access had been resolved by the court. From 2004 to 2010, at least 14 other people sentenced by Reade, mostly immigrants, went to GEO- and CCA-operated prisons in Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and California. In 2011, at least three immigrants sentenced by Reade went to GEO prisons in Texas and Georgia. (They were sentenced after Reade’s husband sold his prison holdings, though their cases began while he still owned the stocks.)
Even in cases where defendants went to government-run lockups, the prison investments were problematic, says Leslie Abramson, a professor at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law who specializes in judicial ethics. When federal judges sentence defendants, he says, they do not know where they will be incarcerated; the BOP assigns the prison. As long as her family held prison stock, Abramson says, Reade had a conflict of interest because anyone she sentenced to time behind bars might be sent to a private facility that she had a financial stake in.
Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said the prison stocks were an “obvious conflict” and Reade should have told her husband to sell them. “There’s a significant likelihood she violated the ethics provisions if she didn’t take any steps to address the conflict,” he says. “I don’t think a judge who handles criminal cases should ever be buying and selling stocks in private prisons,” says Richard Flamm, a California-based ethics expert who wrote a widely recognized book on judicial disqualification. “And of course, if her spouse does it, it’s functionally the same thing.”
Flamm was also troubled by Reade’s husband’s purchase of prison stocks just before the Postville raid. “A reasonable person might question whether or not the judge’s husband was essentially trying to benefit the judge and himself financially by virtue of knowledge the judge acquired in her judicial administrative position,” he says. The Judicial Conference code of conduct states that judges may not use “nonpublic information acquired in a judicial capacity” to inform their business dealings.
Abramson says that while Reade’s husband owned the stocks, Reade should have recused herself from all criminal cases that required her to sentence someone to prison. But Flamm and other experts argue that the question of recusal is less clear-cut, saying it would depend on the extent to which Reade’s rulings could have affected the value of her husband’s investments. American University law professor Amanda Frost sees the prison investments as “something that makes me squirm, but not something I think is a violation of the ethics rule. It doesn’t seem like enough of a financial incentive for her to then be biased in her decision-making.”
Yet even if the investments did not influence Reade’s rulings, Abramson says, “In terms of the integrity of the judiciary, in terms of the objectivity of the criminal justice system, it just looks bad if we know that a judge is making money from a business where she is sending people to serve time.” Abramson cites a 1954 Supreme Court case where the justices said the appearance of impartiality is as important as impartiality itself.
Reade did not respond to a list of questions sent by Mother Jones. “As a matter of practice, Judge Reade does not conduct interviews with reporters. Many judges have similar policies,” explained a spokeswoman at the Administrative Office of the US Courts. She said it would be inappropriate for Reade to comment while Rubashkin’s appeal is pending.
Reade has previously written in a court order that she had not expected so many of the Postville defendants to plead guilty, and that she did not pressure them to do so. She added that “logistical cooperation,” including the creation of scripts, “was necessary” before the raid to ensure the hearings proceeded fairly. In cases with multiple defendants, she wrote, it’s common for judges to “approve search warrants, decide where and when hearings will be held, conduct initial appearances, preside over arraignments, and examine plea agreements—after they are fully negotiated—to determine if they are reasonable.” A request for comment from Figenshaw, Reade’s husband, went unanswered.
Today, dozens of people who were sentenced by Reade while her husband owned prison stock remain behind bars. According to the US Sentencing Commission, the Northern District of Iowa, where Reade sits, sends a significantly higher proportion of defendants to prison, and with longer sentences, than the national average. (This disparity may partly stem from northern Iowa’s high rate of firearms and drug trafficking cases, which often carry mandatory minimum sentences.) For some of the time her husband owned the prison stocks, Reade was reportedly one of only two active judges in the district.
Rubashkin, the former kosher meatpacking plant manager, has nearly two decades left on his sentence at a federal prison in New York. At his request, Reade recommended that the BOP place him at a facility that could accommodate his Orthodox Jewish religious practices. Most of the Postville immigrants were deported after their five-month sentences, but dozens later returned to the United States on U-visas because they had been victims of crime. (The slaughterhouse company had been investigated for its alleged use of child workers and other labor violations, including physical abuse and sexual harassment.) Some still live in Postville.
In January, Reade was honored for her decade of service as the top federal judge in Iowa’s Northern District at a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids. She remains on the bench and has a lifetime tenure.