A social worker in 2013 at the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, where
longtime employees of Henry’s Turkey Service lived for decades under
deteriorating conditions. (Photo by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)
More than six years after their rescue from virtual servitude, in which they worked for little pay in a turkey processing plant while living in a decrepit Iowa schoolhouse, more than two dozen men with intellectual disabilities will share nearly $600,000 owed to them, after a federal court order issued Thursday in Dallas.
The ruling, by Chief Judge Jorge A. Solis of United States District Court, overrode a confidential arrangement that would have redirected hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to the men, in unpaid court judgments, to the heirs of their former employers, the owners of a Texas-based company called Henry’s Turkey Service.
“The court does not believe it is by accident that the settlement proceeds make their way to the children” of the owners of Henry’s Turkey Service, Judge Solis wrote. “This was an intentional scheme concocted solely to shield a substantial sum of money from the United States’ collection efforts.”
The ruling is belated but welcome news to 28 men who were victimized in one of recent history’s more notorious cases of workplace exploitation. It means roughly $25,000 for each man.
Robert A. Canino, a lawyer for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who has handled the men’s case from the outset, expressed elation tempered by what he described as the injustice endured by these men for years.
“At the end of the day, we all understand that money will not heal the wounds or reclaim the lost years of quality of life and equal opportunity,” Mr. Canino said.
One of the men, Robert Penner, 71, who lives with his younger brother, Billy, and two other men in a house in Waterloo, Iowa, heard the news in a telephone call from Mr. Canino.
“Sounds pretty good to me,” Mr. Penner said. “Maybe I’ll buy a lawn mower. Go on vacation. I don’t know.”
Another man, Gene Berg, 60, who lives alone in a house in Waterloo, said Mr. Canino’s call made him “very happy.” He also spoke of vacation plans, but said that he had to prepare for work on Friday, washing dishes at a county facility.
For several decades, Mr. Berg, Mr. Penner and a score of other men, nearly all of them former residents of Texas institutions called “state schools,” performed the least-desirable tasks, including evisceration, at a turkey plant in West Liberty, Iowa, before going home to an old schoolhouse in Atalissa. After deductions for room, board and occasional entertainment, they were paid $65 a month — for decades.
Over the years, complaints were made and newspaper investigations published about Henry’s Turkey Service and the arrangements at the schoolhouse. Nothing changed until early 2009, when a sister of one of the men complained to state authorities and to The Des Moines Register that her brother had less than $100 to his name after nearly 40 years of labor.
The findings of the investigations that ensued shocked the state of Iowa. The schoolhouse, used as a bunkhouse, had devolved into a squalid firetrap, with boarded-up windows, leaking ceilings and infestations of vermin. Worse, the men, many of them now at or near retirement age, were in poor physical and mental shape.
Although the owners of Henry’s Turkey Service — Kenneth Henry and Jane Ann Moreland, the widow of a co-founder, T. H. Johnson — were never criminally charged, several civil complaints were filed against them on behalf of the last 32 men to have lived in the schoolhouse. (Four have since died.)
In 2011, the federal Labor Department secured a $1.7 million judgment. In 2012, the employment commission won a $1.37 million judgment based on wage-discrimination violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Then, last year, the employment office won a $240 million jury verdict in favor of the men after demonstrating the abuse they had endured, including restrictions on their freedom. Although later reduced by statutory caps to $1.6 million, the verdict was seen as a landmark moment in championing the rights of workers with disabilities.
Collecting the money secured in these federal judgments, though, proved difficult, as the officers of Henry’s Turkey Service transferred many of their assets to their adult children. Their former employees, now living in private homes, group homes and a nursing facility, never collected a cent.
Then, early last year, Mr. Canino learned of a financial transaction in the works that concerned a resolution of a property dispute in Texas. In effect, the transaction would have surreptitiously redirected proceeds from a land sale concerning Henry’s Turkey Service to the children of the company’s officers.
According to a news release issued by the employment commission, it and the United States attorney’s office in Fort Worth monitored what it called “a suspicious land deal” and a “secret side agreement.” Along the way, it said, federal officials found evidence of “a fraudulent transaction” and filed an emergency motion for court intervention, which was granted last week.
A lawyer who handled the land deal in question did not return a telephone call Thursday. Federal officials said that if the principals of Henry’s Turkey Service complied, the government would begin to distribute more than $850,000 to the men — an amount that also includes about $272,000 accumulated in other garnishments and liens against the company.