CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ The nation's largest meat producer has been indicted on federal charges that it tried to cut costs in its poultry factories by smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico and giving them fraudulent work papers.
Tyson Foods Inc. and six employees of the Arkansas-based company were charged in the 36-count indictment, which contends they have tolerated the hiring of illegal immigrants since 1994.
The government said the alleged conspiracy included 15 Tyson plants in nine states _ Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
The company aided the immigrants by obtaining false documents so they could work at Tyson poultry processing plants ``under the false pretense of being legally employable,'' according to the indictment unsealed Wednesday.
The six employees indicted _ a company vice president and five other managers _ have been dismissed or placed on administrative leave after an internal investigation several months ago, the company said.
The indictment said one of Tyson's managers told an undercover agent the company would pay $200 for each illegal alien delivered. Prosecutors would not say how many immigrants were involved.
The U.S. attorney's office said a conviction on charges of importing illegal immigrants for commercial advantage can carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, with no chance of parole.
James Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which helped investigate the case, said this sends a message to the business community.
``INS means business, and companies, regardless of size, are on notice that INS is committed to enforcing compliance with immigration laws and protecting America's work force,'' he said.
Tyson spokesman Ken Kimbro said the charge of corporate conspiracy was ``absolutely false. In reality, the specific charges are limited to a few managers who were acting outside of company policy at five of our 57 poultry processing plants.''
Kimbro added: ``While we are disappointed that it has come to this, we will vigorously defend our business, our diverse work force and our reputation.''
Tyson, based in Springdale, Ark., is the world's largest poultry producer, processor and marketer. Revenues for fiscal 2002 are projected to be in excess of $25 billion, according to the company.
In June, the company merged with IBP Inc., the nation's largest beef producer. The deal created a meat processing company with 28 percent of the beef market, 23 percent of the chicken market and 18 percent of the pork market.
Robert Hash, vice president of the company's retail fresh division, and Gerald Lankford, former human resources manager of the division, are charged, along with three former managers at the Shelbyville plant and a manager in Noel, Mo., who used to work in Shelbyville.
Shelbyville plant spokesman Mark Harmon did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
The indictment also named four unindicted co-conspirators, one of whom is accused of smuggling immigrants, trafficking in fraudulent documents and coordinating transportation for the workers.
In the past, Tyson officials have downplayed the company's role in booming Hispanic populations near its plants but acknowledged the poultry industry has benefited from Latino labor.
Bedford County, where the Shelbyville plant is located, is home to Tennessee's highest concentration of Hispanics at 8 percent, according to 2000 Census figures.
A Jan. 24 hearing is set before U.S. Magistrate William Mitchell Carter.
Tyson has run into legal trouble in the past. Archie Schaffer III, a former executive, was sentenced to a year in prison for illegally trying to influence former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Schaffer was later pardoned by President Clinton.