The 36-count indictment, unsealed in federal court in Tennessee, stemmed from a 2 1/2 year undercover investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into Tyson's business practices, the department said.
In a statement, the company denied the charges, with Tyson Senior Vice President of Human Resources Ken Kimbro saying, "The prosecutor's claim in this indictment of a corporate conspiracy is absolutely false."
Kimbro also said the charges are "limited to a few managers who were acting outside of company policy at five of our 57 poultry processing plants." Tyson said four of the six managers named in the indictment had been fired and the other two are on administrative leave.
The Justice Department said 15 Tyson plants in nine states have been implicated in a conspiracy in which workers allegedly were transported from Mexico across the U.S. border.
According to the indictment, the Springdale, Arkansas-based company cultivated a corporate culture in which the hiring of illegal immigrant workers was condoned to meet production goals and to cut costs to maximize profits, the department said. The alleged scheme dated back to 1994, the indictment stated.
"The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously investigating and prosecuting companies or individuals who exploit immigrants and violate our nation's immigration laws. The bottom line on the corporate balance sheet is no excuse for criminal conduct," Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff said in a statement.
The INS charged that Tyson preferred hiring illegal immigrants because they were forced to be more productive and were less likely to complain to management about inhumane working conditions and lack of benefits.
Tyson's Kimbro said, "We treat all team members fairly and with dignity. We're very proud of our diverse work force and encourage every team member to express freely any concerns or questions they have. We find it offensive that the prosecutor suggests that we have treated any team member in a 'less humane' or a discriminatory fashion. This is simply not true."
The indictment named two Tyson executives, Robert Hash, vice president of the retail fresh division, and Gerald Lankford, former human resources manager for the same division, the department said.
It said the indictment also charged four former managers: Keith Snyder, complex manager in Noel, Missouri; Truley Ponder, former complex manager in Shelbyville, Tennessee; Spencer Mabe, former plant manager in Shelbyville; and Jimmy Rowland, the former complex personnel manager in Shelbyville.
The indictment charged that between 1994 and June 2001 Tyson hired illegal immigrants from Mexico and listed th costs of the hiring as "recruitment" expenses.
The company was accused of purchasing false documents such as Social Security cards. Prosecutors said Tyson used an INS program that seeks to ensure that all employees are in the United States legally to "foster the appearance of compliance with the law" and to "keep the INS from conducting raids" to identify the illegal immigrants.
In the past, Tyson officials have downplayed the company's role in the booming Hispanic populations near its plants. Bedford County, where the Shelbyville plant is situated, is home to Tennessee's highest concentration of Hispanics, according to 2000 census figures.
Tyson's shares plunged on the news, closing down 73 cents to $10.86 on the New York Stock Exchange. Before the charges were disclosed, the stock had been trading higher for the day.
Christine McCracken, food and agribusiness industry analyst at Midwest Research Institute, said the accusations against Tyson are limited to a few plants and would not spur wide changes in hiring practices for the industry.
"I think they were probably looking for somebody to make an example of, and Tyson probably fit that," she said.
Tyson has seen earnings rise of late, with the chicken business starting to improve after two tough years. Tyson also improved its product line when it completed its $2.9 billion purchase of beef processor IBP in September.
Tyson previously encountered legal problems when top executives at the firm were accused of providing illegal gratuities to former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and to Espy's girlfriend.
Tyson agreed to pay a $6 million fine in 1998 to settle allegations that it provided thousands of dollars in gifts, including football tickets, plane fares and limousine rentals, to Espy while he was office in the Clinton administration.
A federal jury acquitted Espy on all charges of improperly accepting gifts and travel from firms he regulated. Espy resigned in 1994 amid the charges.
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