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Iowa probes plant that employed mentally retarded

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — State inspectors have shut down a building that housed mentally disabled men brought from Texas to work in a West Liberty turkey processing plant.


The Des Moines Register reported in a copyright story on Sunday that the state investigation focuses on Henry's Turkey Service, the Texas-based company that has employed dozens of mentally disabled men to work in the meat-processing plant since the 1970s.


The Register reports that the state fire marshal's office on Saturday shut down the building that housed the 21 men, called "the bunkhouse," a 106-year-old building in Atalissa. The men were moved to a hotel for the night.


"My God, this is an embarrassment to the state of Iowa," said Sylvia Piper of Iowa Protection and Advocacy, a federally funded group that oversees services for the disabled. "This should not be happening in our state."


In a statement released Sunday night, Gov. Chet Culver called the situation "appalling" and the conditions "deplorable," and said he is directing Iowa Workforce Development, the state labor agency, to investigate possible labor law violations.


In addition, Culver said the Department of Elder Affairs will help with guardian issues and the Department of Human Services, along with the Attorney General's office, will assess the men's needs and "assure that their rights are fully protected."


Culver said the bunkhouse was shut down late Saturday night by the state fire marshal's office due to "unsafe conditions," including boarded-up windows and a heating system that doesn't work.


"We intend to get to the bottom of this matter, and how this alleged abuse could have taken place," Culver said in the release. "We are going to make sure everything is being done to both to protect these men and to assure that there is accountability for this appalling situation."


Most of the 21 men who were ordered from the building on Saturday are in their 50s and 60s. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI agents were on the scene Saturday night.


The plant acted as the men's employer, landlord and caregiver. For instance, Keith Brown, 57, has lived at the bunkhouse since 1979. Payroll records obtained by the Register show that in January, Henry's Turkey Service took $487 from his earnings to pay for his room and board, then deducted another $572 for "kind care."


Keith Brown's sister, Sherri Brown, said her brother has $80 in the bank after working for Henry's for 30 years. The payroll records also show the men were left with as little as $65 per month in salary


A company, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Labor, can pay less than the minimum wage to disabled workers who would otherwise not be employable.


Sherri Brown said she was given only vague assurances when she asked company officials where her brother's wages and Social Security payments have gone.


"I'm angry," Sherri Brown said. "I want to get some answers."


One of the men's caretakers said when the bunkhouse gets cold, she puts plywood over the windows. She also said cockroaches are a consistent problem.


Piper said one of her investigators was in the building Saturday and was "appalled" at the condition of the bathrooms.


Although the men work at West Liberty Foods, they are employees of Henry's Turkey Service, which has a contract to supply the plant with laborers. The contract expires March 8.


The facility has been scrutinized before, beginning in 1979 with a grand jury investigation in which one of the company's executives was indicted on charges of transporting illegal immigrants from Texas to other states.


That year, Henry's had 60 men living in the building, and the state of Texas was referring mentally handicapped people to the company and giving it money for skills training.


State inspectors visited the building more than two decades later in response to complaints that the bunkhouse was an unlicensed care center. But in both 2001 and 2005, inspectors concluded the men weren't dependent enough to require skilled care and no action was taken.


The city of Atalissa has rented the bunkhouse to Henry's for $600 a month. Henry's pays for maintenance of the interior and the city shares the expense on exterior care.


Atalissa mayor Joe Blick said no housing, health, fire or rental inspections of the bunkhouse have taken place.


"Basically, they just sort of take care of the building themselves," Blick said.


Former Mayor Don Passmore said that when the city partnered with Henry's, no one questioned how the company was paying its workers.


"No, you see, that's something we absolutely never, ever got involved with," he said. "Never. So there was no way of ever really knowing what took place there."


Thurman "T.H." Johnson of Texas ran Henry's Turkey Service for decades, as well as an affiliate called Hill Country Farms, according to corporate records. After Johnson died in 2008, his longtime business partner, Kenneth J. Henry, took over.


Henry declined to answer questions from the Register.


Robert Berry, the corporate secretary at the affiliate, Hill Country Farms, said federal authorities investigated the company three or four years ago for potential Iowa wage-law violations, but found no wrongdoing.


"In the end, the federal labor board gave us a clean bill of health," Berry said.


Berry said the 21 men are being retired, and that about 10 men were returned to Texas a few weeks ago.


Last week, Henry's Turkey Service said it planned to return the remaining 21 men to Texas.


Many have no family. Some were expected to end up in care facilities, depending on their level of disability.


In the current state investigation, social workers are trying to assess the men's needs and level of dependency.

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