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Tyson Says Top Bosses Didn't Know

Prosecutors played secret tapes Thursday of a man described as a manager at Tyson Foods arranging for the delivery of hundreds of illegal immigrants from an undercover agent posing as a smuggler.

"Hell, I put over 700 people to work," said the man on the tape, whom prosecutors identified as plant manager Robert Sanford. "I'm going to need to replace 300 or 400 people - maybe 500. I'm going to need a lot."

Tyson and three officials are charged with conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants to work on the production lines of the company. Tyson, the country's largest meat processor, supplies about one-quarter of the nation's chickens.

Border Patrol Agent Benito Maldonado testified Thursday that he handed over eight illegal immigrants to Sanford, manager of the company's Monroe, N.C., plant, in January 1998. Court records have identified Sanford as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

Tyson lawyers said in Wednesday's opening statements that any hiring of illegal immigrants was done by a few plant managers and was not known to executives at Tyson headquarters in Springdale, Ark.

"No one in senior management knew," attorney Tom Green said. "No member of senior management ever violated immigration laws or encouraged" anyone else to.

Tyson spokesman Gary Michelson said Thursday the tapes "involve former Tyson employees who violated company hiring policies and were subsequently terminated."

Prosecutors say the conspiracy began in 1994 after Tyson plant managers had trouble hiring cheap legal help for its poultry plants. Company officials then turned to a pipeline of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Assistant U.S. Attorney John MacCoon alleged.

Maldonado, known to Tyson as Benjamin, described picking up eight illegal immigrants at a warehouse near where they sneaked into the country in Del Rio, Texas.

Maldonado testified Wednesday that Tyson plants solicited and accepted 26 deliveries of illegal immigrant workers during an undercover investigation started in 1997.

He said a total of 136 illegal immigrants were taken to Tyson plants in six states. Another 18 illegals were intercepted before reaching Cumming, Ga.

Tyson attorneys said they turned down a government demand for $100 million to have the charges dismissed. They also have accused the government of using undercover agents to entrap employees.

A December 2001 indictment accuses Tyson and three company officials of taking part in a smuggling conspiracy. If found guilty, Tyson could face millions in fines and the loss of government contracts.

By Bill Poovey

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