Allegations of labor abuses dogged Mississippi plant years before immigration raids

FILE PHOTO: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) look on after executing search warrants and making arrests at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Mississippi, U.S. in this August 7, 2019 handout photo. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – Long before U.S. immigration authorities arrested 680 people at agricultural processing facilities in Mississippi this week, one of the five targeted companies faced allegations of serious labor violations including intimidation, harassment and exploitation of its largely immigrant work force, according to a federal lawsuit.

Last August, Illinois-based poultry supplier Koch Foods settled a multi-year lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of more than 100 workers at the Morton, Mississippi, plant over claims the company knew – or should have known – of sexual and physical assaults against its Hispanic workers.

The workers’ complaints spanned 2004 to 2008, when the plant employed more than 500 people. They allege that a manager would grope women from behind while they were working, punch employees and throw chicken parts at them. Workers also alleged that supervisors coerced payments from them for everything from medical leave and promotions to bathroom breaks.

Privately-held Koch Foods, run by billionaire Joseph Grendys, did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings, the company called the claims of abuse and harassment “baffling” and “outrageous.” Koch said the plaintiffs made claims against the company as a means to obtain U.S. visas for crime victims who collaborate with law enforcement, according to the court documents.

The company settled the allegations last year by paying a $3.75 million and entering into a three-year consent decree to prevent future violations. It agreed to implement new policies such as creating a 24-hour complaint hot line and publicly posting anti-discrimination policies, according to the EEOC.

Some workers at the Mississippi plant who lacked legal immigration status alleged in court documents that supervisors threatened to turn them in to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns, according to the EEOC complaint.

Former federal officials and immigration attorneys said mass deportation operations like the ones conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday in Mississippi can have a chilling effect on future labor complaints.

“If workers are being threatened with being turned over to ICE, and then here comes ICE and arrests workers,” people could be more reluctant to speak up, said John Sandweg, a former acting ICE director during the Obama administration.

In the EEOC lawsuit, one Koch Foods employee without legal immigration status alleged that a manager sexually harassed his wife and made him pay to use the bathroom, once waiting until he had soiled himself to give him permission to leave his spot on the production line.

“If he found out that I had talked about anything that he was doing, charging money, the way he mistreated us, the dirty words he used, he told me that if I went to complain in the office that he had contacts in immigration,” the worker said in a 2012 deposition that was filed as part of the suit. “And that he knew where I lived.”

Maria Cazorla, a Cuban immigrant and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company that was wrapped into the EEOC case, said in an interview Thursday that a manager inappropriately touched her and hit her then-husband, also a co-worker, in the ribs while he was working.

According to Cazorla’s interview and court documents, her husband at the time was targeted by management and fired over his immigration status after she filed her lawsuit against the company in 2010. Cazorla, now a U.S. citizen, left the company and Mississippi and now renovates houses in Florida.

Even after the manager accused of some of the most serious violations was fired in 2008, workers continued to be subjected to threats of violence and reprisals in the workplace, the lawsuit said.

The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws and can investigate employee complaints. The agency tries to settle the claims but, if unsuccessful, it can file a lawsuit against employers for workplace discrimination.

Marsha Rucker, EEOC Regional Attorney based in Birmingham, Alabama who oversaw the lawsuit, said she did not believe the EEOC’s civil complaint was connected to the ICE action this week.

SCENES OF MASS ARRESTS

The dramatic operation on Wednesday was the biggest workplace immigration sweep since December 2006, when ICE targeted meatpacking plants in six states and arrested almost 1,300 people.

Some children of workers were left traumatized by their parents’ detention on what was for many the first day of school, according to local media reports.

“Government, please,” an 11-year-old girl said on a CBS News segment, weeping in front of a community center where she and other children were sent to spend the night. “My dad didn’t do nothing. He’s not a criminal.”

ICE officials told reporters on a call on Thursday that they had released 303 people for humanitarian reasons – if they were pregnant or a primary caretaker of children, for example. Among those released pending a hearing before an immigration judge were 18 “juveniles” who had been working in the plants, ICE said, including one 14-year-old.

Koch Foods has been the target of worksite enforcement in the past.

In August 2007, immigration agents arrested more than 160 employees of a Koch Foods chicken plant in Fairfield, Ohio, and paid about a half-million dollars in fines. At the time, ICE said Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harboring immigrants in the United States illegally.

The company, which according to its website is not affiliated with Koch Industries or the Koch brothers, started with 13 employees deboning and cutting up chicken in one room in 1985. It now counts more than 13,000 employees and bills itself as one of the biggest poultry processors in the United States, with facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois as well as Mississippi.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration, the National Chicken Council – a lobbying group – said the poultry industry “uses every tool available to verify the identify and legal immigration status of all prospective employees” but said there was no government system available to “confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.”

(Mica Rosenberg reported from New York and Kristina Cooke from San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

Gunman angry at Maryland newspaper kills five in targeted attack

Law enforcement officials survey the scene after a gunman fired through a glass door at the Capital Gazette newspaper and sprayed the newsroom with gunfire, killing at least five people and injuring several others, in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Warren Strobel

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) – A man who had a long-running feud with an Annapolis newspaper blasted his way through its newsroom with a shotgun on Thursday, killing at least five people in one of the deadliest attacks recorded on a U.S. media outlet, authorities said.

The suspect fired through a glass door, looked for victims and then sprayed the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper group in Annapolis with gunfire, police and a witness said.

Acting police chief of the Anne Arundel County Police Department William Krampf told a news conference that Capital Gazette assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, 59, was among the victims.

Wendi Winters, 65, Rebecca Smith, 34, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara were also killed, he said. Smith was a sales assistant and the others were journalists.

“This was a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette,” Krampf said. “This person was prepared to shoot people. His intent was to cause harm.”

The suspect is Jarrod Ramos, 38, of Laurel, the Capital Gazette and Baltimore Sun reported, citing law enforcement.

Anne Arundel County police said on Twitter that due to investigative reasons, they have not released the name of the suspect in custody, adding that as of Thursday evening, the suspect has not been booked.

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

In 2012, Ramos brought a defamation lawsuit against Eric Hartley, formerly a staff writer and columnist with publication The Capital, and Thomas Marquardt, then editor and publisher of The Capital, according to a court filing.

In 2015, Maryland’s second-highest court upheld a ruling in favor of the Capital Gazette and a former reporter who were accused by Ramos of defamation.

According to a legal document, the article contended that Ramos had harassed a woman on Facebook and that he had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment. The court agreed that the contents of the article were accurate and based on public records, the document showed.

Ramos said on Twitter that he had set up an account to defend himself, and wrote in his bio that he was suing people in Anne Arundel County and “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

‘A WAR ZONE’

Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, said he was hiding under his desk along with other newspaper employees when the shooter stopped firing, the Capital Gazette reported on its website.

The newsroom looked “like a war zone,” he told the Baltimore Sun, adding, “I don’t know why he stopped.”

“As much as I’m going to try to articulate how traumatizing it is to be hiding under your desk, you don’t know until you’re there and you feel helpless,” Davis said.

Police officers in the Maryland capital of Annapolis responded within a minute to a 911 call about a shooting in progress and apprehended the suspect who was hiding under a desk, authorities said.

Police are treating the shooting as a local incident, with no links to terrorism, a law enforcement source told Reuters. Krampf did not say why the gunman may have targeted the newspaper or its employees.

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

When police found the suspect, his weapon was on the ground and “not in his immediate proximity,” Steve Schuh, Anne Arundel county executive, told cable news station CNN.

Police said they recovered what they thought might have been an explosive device but Krampf later said the suspect had smoke grenades. Investigators were in the process of securing his Maryland residence and obtaining search warrants, he said.

The suspect appeared to have damaged his fingertips to try to avoid detection and was refusing to cooperate with law enforcement, Baltimore TV station WJZ and other local media reported. Krampf did not comment on those reports.

Capital Gazette runs multiple newspapers out of its Annapolis office and the group includes one of the oldest newspapers in the United States, The Gazette, which traces its origins back to 1727.

The company, part of the Tronc Inc <TRNC.O> media group, publishes newspapers in and around Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. The papers have thrived by focusing on local news in the shadows of two much larger competitors, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

‘WE’RE PUTTING OUT A PAPER’

Law enforcement in Baltimore and New York City deployed extra officers to the offices of the New York Times and other major media outlets as a precaution, authorities said.

The shooting drew the attention of media groups, including Reporters Without Borders, which said it was deeply disturbed by the events in Annapolis.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said that U.S. President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Thank you to all of the First Responders who are currently on the scene,” Trump said in a tweet.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Twitter, “A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American.”

Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital Gazette, tweeted that he was devastated, heartbroken and numb.

“I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community,” he wrote.

One of the group’s flagship papers, The Capital, plans to publish a Friday edition, several reporters with the group said. “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” reporter Chase Cook wrote on Twitter a few hours after the shooting.

(Reporting by Warren Strobel; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason in Washington, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina, Diana Kruzman, Tea Kvetenadze, Frank McGurty and Peter Szekely in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang, Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold)

Families of Chinese activists face house arrest, harassment from ‘smiling tigers’

Li Wenzu, wife of detained Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, poses for a picture in Beijing, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – When a team of Chinese state security agents picked up Li Wenzu and then prevented her from leaving her own home last week, she was scared but not surprised.

She was detained on the seventh day of a protest march she organized in an attempt to get the authorities to explain what has happened to her husband, Wang Quanzhang, a lawyer who has been missing since August 2015 during a sweeping crackdown on rights activists.

Li was initially barricaded in her home by dozens of people, including plainclothes security officers and members of the local neighborhood committee, she said. Scuffles broke out between her supporters and the crowd, according to videos shared with Reuters.

While Li was permitted to leave and go to a friend’s home the following day, her experience of being sporadically placed under house arrest and pressured by the Chinese authorities to stay quiet has become commonplace for the families of Chinese rights activists, they say.

Such “soft” detention measures are currently being used in dozens of cases, according to the rights groups, including that of Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo. He died of liver cancer last July while in custody.

Many of these individuals have never been charged with any crime, but are treated as guilty by association and as a threat to national security due to the embarrassment they can cause for the Chinese state if they speak out, rights groups say.

Those affected complain of their homes being bugged, phones tapped and of security cameras being installed outside their front doors. But the main method of repression, they say, is being monitored in person by China’s state security agents.

China’s ministry of state security could not be reached for comment as it does not have publicly available telephone numbers. China’s public security ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

‘SMILING TIGERS’

Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers and activists, with hundreds detained and dozens jailed.

Li said the freedom she was given after her brief house arrest was in her experience “only temporary”, as state security officials have become a regular presence for her and her young son.

“In 2016, state security for a period rented a flat on the second floor of my building,” Li told Reuters in an interview at her friend’s home.

The agents are often outwardly friendly and tell Li they are there to protect her safety, she said, calling them “smiling tigers”.

When Li took her son to search for a pre-school in the neighborhood, agents went with them and warned the school against accepting her child due to the family being a “threat to national security”, she said.

“When I got angry with them, they told me that I needed to behave and wait quietly at home for my husband – then my child could go to school,” she said.

Her son has still not found a pre-school place, she said.

‘PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY’

Placing high-profile dissidents under house arrest is nothing new in China; it was even used for former head of the ruling Communist Party Zhao Ziyang after he was sacked in 1989 for showing sympathy towards the pro-democracy Tiananmen movement.

But under Xi, increasingly brazen measures have been used to silence individuals who are not formally charged in an attempt to avoid international scrutiny, according to William Nee, Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International.

“They want a degree of plausible deniability,” he said. “If they were to criminally detain Li Wenzu, they would eventually have to justify it in law.”

Liu Xia has been under supervision at home almost constantly since her husband won the Nobel prize in 2010. She is still only allowed to speak to her friends in infrequent pre-arranged phone calls and visits, they say.

Another common target for house arrest are rights activists who are formally charged but then released after they give what rights groups allege are coerced “confessions”, either to Chinese state media or during trial.

While many avoid jail time, they remain under a form of detention that Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, has dubbed “non-release ‘release'”.

Such methods, Cohen wrote in a recent blog post, go beyond simple house arrest to include an array of “informal, unauthorized and suffocating” restrictions.

Wang Yu, a prominent rights lawyer who was arrested in 2015 during the same crackdown that saw Li’s husband detained, was still under effective house arrest in late 2017, despite her release from detention in late 2016, a friend told Reuters.

Restrictions on Wang have relaxed somewhat in recent months, but she is still closely monitored by authorities, the friend said.

“She told me not to come to her home, because there were people there with her all day keeping watch, just following her around, not subtly at all,” the friend said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell)

U.S. expels 35 Russian diplomats, closes two compounds

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk into a photo opportunity before their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland in response to a campaign of harassment against American diplomats in Moscow, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

The move against the diplomats from the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco is part of a series of actions announced on Thursday to punish Russia for a campaign of intimidation of American diplomats in Moscow and interference in the U.S. election.

The Obama administration was also announcing on Thursday a series of retaliatory measures against Russia for hacking into U.S. political institutions and individuals and leaking information to help President-elect Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, two U.S. officials said.

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has called for better relations with Russia. It was not clear if he will be able to immediately overturn the measures announced on Thursday.

The Russian diplomats would have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds, which are used by Russian officials for intelligence gathering, will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday, the senior U.S. official added.

“These actions were taken to respond to Russian harassment of American diplomats and actions by the diplomats that we have assessed to be not consistent with diplomatic practice,” the official said.

The State Department has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed U.S. diplomats in Moscow, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

“By imposing costs on the Russian diplomats in the United States, by denying them access to the two facilities, we hope the Russian government reevaluates its own actions, which have impeded the ability and safety of our own embassy personnel in Russia,” the official said.

The U.S. official declined to name the Russian diplomats who would be affected, although it is understood that Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, will not be one of those expelled.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell)

Long lines, raised voices, one Trump lawsuit on U.S. election day

Voters line up to cast their ballot on election day at a polling station in Harlem.

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Voters reported long lines, malfunctioning equipment, and isolated cases of harassment at polling places in Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election as fears of bigger problems did not appear to be materializing.

Civil rights groups said they were receiving complaints about intimidating behavior at voting sites in Pennsylvania and Florida as supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and backers of Democrat Hillary Clinton went to cast their ballots.

But a Democratic Party source said the Clinton campaign was not encountering systemic problems beyond the usual Election Day hiccups. Trump sued the registrar of voters in Clark County, Nevada, with a claim that a polling place in Las Vegas had improperly been allowed to remain open last week to accommodate people who were lined up to vote. Nevada is one of several states that allow early voting.

Trump has repeatedly said the election will be “rigged” but has not provided evidence for his claim. He called on his supporters to watch for signs of fraud in urban areas, raising fears they could harass minority voters. Numerous studies have found that voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States.

Tens of millions of voters are expected to cast ballots to conclude what has been an unusually bitter presidential campaign that has lasted nearly two years.

The federal government reduced its election monitoring program in the wake of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened federal oversight of states with a history of racial discrimination. Revised voting laws and lengthy court battles in many states also have left voters uncertain about when and where they can cast their ballot and whether they will need to present photo identification.

Civil rights groups, who have enlisted 7,000 volunteers, said they had fielded 20,000 calls to a telephone hotline by early afternoon.

Nearly half of those complaints were about polling places not opening on time or voting machines not working properly, said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. About 28 percent of calls were from people finding out that they were not registered to vote.

But some were calling to report harassment, she said.

“What we have noticed is an uptick in the number of voter intimidation and voter harassment incidents,” compared with the last presidential election in 2012, she said.

In Broward County, Florida, two election clerks at a  polling site were fired after they clashed over how to resolve complaints of voter intimidation, local media reported.

In Jacksonville, Florida, one man refused to leave a polling place when he was asked, she said.

More than half of the voter intimidation complaints were coming from Pennsylvania, where poll workers were reportedly asking voters which candidate they supported, and voters waiting in line were shouting at each other, said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a grassroots group.

The Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which monitors voting in the state’s largest city, said on Twitter it was not receiving any complaints out of the ordinary.

Durham County in North Carolina agreed to extend the poll closing time to 8:30 p.m. after computer problems, the state chapter of the NAACP said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Julia Harte and David Ingram; editing by Grant McCool)

Cyber Bullying has more than emotional costs

Electronic cables are silhouetted next to the logo of Twitter in this illustration photo in Sarajevo

By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Anyone who has had embarrassing photos posted on social media or been deluged with angry messages can attest to the high emotional cost of cyber bullying. But there is also a cost in real dollars for some to clean up their online reputations, including legal fees, security measures and even counseling.

For the 40 percent of adult Internet users who are dealing with this issue, according to 2014 Pew Research Center data, and numerous school-age children, there is a new insurance policy to help mitigate the financial repercussions.

Chubb Ltd recently began offering optional cyber bullying coverage for its homeowners insurance clients. The coverage is included in the company’s Family Protection policy, which costs around $70 a year. It covers up to $60,000 in compensation to clients and their families to pay for services including psychological counseling, lost salary and, in extreme cases, public relations assistance.

“It’s so hard to have complete control online,” said Christie Alderman, vice president of client product and services, Chubb personal risk services. “We do know that when it does occur it can be really devastating.”

Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist from California, learned the costs of cyber bullying the hard way.

After publishing a 2013 peer-reviewed paper that suggested sex addiction is not a clinical diagnosis, Prause said she was subjected to online insults from people she believes oppose her work.

The abuse varied in scope, from repeated claims that she faked her data to comments about her appearance.

“I had a TED Talk (posted online) and they just filled it with ‘tranny’ comments,” said Prause, who worked at the University of California-Los Angeles at the time the attacks began. “They have definitely singled me out.”

Prause filed a cease-and-desist order against her harassers, and said those persons are no longer allowed to contact her directly. But Prause said she spent around $5,000 to mitigate the damage over the years, hiring an attorney and someone to take screenshots of the abuse lobbed at her online.

Rich Matta, the chief executive officer of ReputationDefender (https://www.reputationdefender.com/), an online reputation management firm, says that the average consumer dealing with this problem can spend around “a few thousand dollars” a year to combat cyber bullying.

“It’s no surprise that remediation of cyber bullying is now insurable,” Matta said, referencing the Chubb insurance policy.

But some feel that taking out an insurance policy against online harassment is going too far.

Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University, said insurance for cyber bullying reinforces a victim mentality and is “tapping (in to) the fear.”

“You can do a lot on your own to safeguard your reputation,” Hinduja said.

Experts say it is important for consumers to be proactive in protecting their online reputation, by taking a few simple steps.

Here are a few tips to avoid the cyber bully trap:

1. Keep it private

Hinduja recommends setting social media profiles to “private,” to avoid writing posts that are too frequent and opinionated, and to block or mute accounts that go too far.

“You are going to be a much better advocate for yourself,” Hinduja said.

2. Be proactive about your child’s online presence

While more schools are educating kids about cyber abuse, Matta said parents still need to monitor how their kids use social media. “They need to establish some boundaries and rules around when it’s OK to use technology,” he said.

3. Get help when you need it

For those who feel overwhelmed managing their online presence, resources like online ReputationDefenders can offer a reprieve – for a price. ReputationDefenders typically charges private clients between $3,000 and $20,000 per year, while Reputation 911 (http://reputation911.com/) offers monthly packages for personal reputation management between $195 and $995.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Matthew Lewis)