Federal judge doesn’t buy IRS ploy in Grainger County slaughterhouse suit

By: - June 14, 2022 7:02 am
Photo of a pork processing plant, provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Photo of a pork processing plant, provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

For nearly two years, the Internal Revenue Service refused to reveal its role in a controversial 2018 raid at a Grainger County slaughterhouse in a bid to shield its agents from a civil-rights lawsuit, court records show.

When the ploy failed, those records also show, the IRS then tried to use the delay the agency’s stonewalling created to convince a federal judge to toss out the lawsuit as untimely filed.

But U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough is not only rejecting the move but accusing the IRS and its federal counterparts of subterfuge in the April 2018 raid at Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant in Bean Station.

“In this case, the Tennessee doctrine of fraudulent concealment applies,” McDonough wrote in an order made public earlier this year. “The IRS knew that (slaughterhouse workers) claimed they had been injured in the raid … Nevertheless, (the IRS) took repeated steps to prevent (the workers) from uncovering the identities of IRS agents involved in the raid’s execution.

“Additionally, the other (federal agencies involved in the raid) likely knew that IRS agents were involved and did not correct (the workers) or (U.S.) Magistrate Judge (Bruce) Guyton’s assumption to the contrary,” McDonough wrote.

“The search warrant itself said nothing about detaining any workers or that the IRS would also be involved in detaining such workers,” the judge continued. “Without the government’s cooperation, (the impacted workers) could not discover the identity of the IRS agents, and the government was not forthcoming with information regarding the identities of (the agents). Nonetheless, (the workers) were diligent in pursuing their rights.”

The ruling marks the second time McDonough has questioned the credibility and motives of federal agents in turning what was supposed to be a hunt for records in a tax-evasion probe into the largest immigration raid in Tennessee in more than a decade.

McDonough ruled last year ample evidence exists to show federal agents concealed from a federal magistrate judge the true purpose and scope of the raid, targeted Latino workers inside the plant solely based on their ethnicity, hurled race-based insults at them and used excessive force against at least two workers.

With his latest ruling, McDonough has now set the stage for a jury to decide if local, state and federal law enforcers conspired to violate the equal protection rights of the plant’s Latino workers, who were rounded up at gunpoint, handcuffed and held for hours at a National Guard armory sans any proof of wrongdoing.

immigration raid complaint

‘Operation Great Steak Out’

Records reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout show the plant raid, which garnered national headlines and spurred at least one documentary, was not supposed to be an immigration raid at all, and the plant’s workers were not supposed to be targets.

An IRS agent, instead, told a federal magistrate judge just days before the raid that he and fellow agents wanted permission to go inside the plant to collect records to use in a tax-evasion probe against Brantley.

A Grainger County bank, the search warrant stated, had alerted the IRS that plant owner James Brantley for years had been withdrawing huge sums of cash each week to pay his employees, and two white plant supervisors told an unidentified undercover operative that workers didn’t need to provide any records to get a job and would be paid a $10 hourly rate in cash.

But court records show agents and federal prosecutors had been meeting for months prior to the search warrant request to plan a round-up of Latinos working at the plant as part of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration.

The agents dubbed the raid “Operation Great Steak Out,” newly-revealed federal court records show.

On the day of the raid, more than 90 federal agents with agencies including the IRS and Department of Homeland Security, and officers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Morristown Police Department converged on the plant with military-style weapons, records reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout showed.

THP shut down public roadways leading to the plant, and an U.S. Customs and Border Patrol helicopter buzzed overhead, records show, as a Tennessee National Guard Armory in Hamblen County was readied for use as a makeshift immigration detention center.

Dressed in black with no name tags or agency identifying markers, the law enforcers stormed inside the plant and began yelling at the nearly 100 Latino workers inside, using racial slurs and ordering them to stop work and raise their hands.

McDonough said in a 2021 ruling the agents never once asked to see identification or proof of immigration status. They ignored all white workers — none of whom were berated, handcuffed or ordered to stay put. The agents even allowed the white workers to smoke outside.

When a Latino worker complained the zip ties on his wrists were too tight, an agent responded “he had a problem with workers” because they didn’t speak English and told the worker he had no right to “tell him what to do,” McDonough wrote.

An agent put his booted foot on a Latino worker’s head and pointed a gun at him after he fell while being herded outside, records show. When a Latino worker asked if a pregnant co-worker could be allowed to sit down, an agent cursed and told him to “shut his mouth.”

Another agent told a worker “you don’t have rights here” and called him “Mexican (expletive),” McDonough wrote.

One worker was punched in the face. When a worker asked to use the restroom, an agent walked him outside, put a gun to his head and told him to “relieve himself right there, in sight of other officers, while staring at his genitals, laughing and cursing at him,” the judge wrote.

IRS agents were supposed to be investigating allegations the owner of a slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant was paying his employees in cash to avoid tax liabilities, but instead, the agents participated in what turned out to be a raid by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Latino workers were held handcuffed and at gunpoint inside vans for an hour. An officer “who was tall and overweight and had long blond hair down to his waist took out his phone and yelled, ‘Selfie,’ while taking a picture of himself with the workers,” the judge’s opinion stated.

Agents continued to berate the Latino workers on the 30-minute ride to the armory, where they were taken next — still without any idea why.

Officers told the workers to “shut their (expletive mouths) and that they were going back to their (expletive) (expletive) country,” court records show.

Deals and holding cells

Brantley was not arrested that day nor were the two white supervisors, since identified in court records as brothers Carl Kinser and Jason Kinser. Brantley eventually struck a deal in 2019 to plead guilty to tax charges, admitting he dodged paying $2.5 million in payroll taxes. He was sentenced to 18 months, which he served at a work camp in Alabama. He’s been free since January 2021.

The Kinser brothers also struck plea deals in 2019 with the U.S. Attorney’s office, confessing to charges of harboring illegal immigrants. They were ordered to spend three years under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifton Corker wound up freeing them from that supervision just nine months after it started.

The Latino workers arrested on the day of the raid were held for hours at the armory without any charges pending against them, without any notice of their whereabouts to their families and without legal representation, records show.

Those who were able to show legal work status were eventually released from the armory. Others wound up in immigration holding cells for weeks and months before their immigration status was determined. A few were charged with the federal crime of illegal re-entry, essentially a law that makes it illegal to cross back into the U.S. once officially deported.

A contingent of nonprofit immigration attorneys began working with the workers’ families within days of the raid and are now representing a half-dozen workers in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the individual agents and officers involved in the raid and the federal government.

Those attorneys immediately sought through the Freedom of Information Act to determine the identities of the agents, officers and agencies involved in the raid, but McDonough’s latest ruling shows the Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond and the IRS refused — three separate times — to provide the requested information.

“The IRS denied … the request because the (agency said the) information requested could contain ‘returns and return information’ of third parties,” McDonough wrote.

The workers’ attorneys filed suit over the IRS denials, which the agency fought. The agency finally provided the information, which revealed the presence of as many as 50 IRS agents at the raid, in February 2020 — 10 months after a legal deadline for the workers to sue individual IRS agents had passed.

When the workers sought to add those IRS agents to the litigation already pending against other federal, state and local law enforcers, the Justice Department cried foul and asked McDonough to block them.

“(The workers’) original complaint … demonstrates that (the workers) had ample knowledge of IRS involvement in the operation yet failed to diligently name the … IRS Agents within the (statute of) limitations period, and their claims fail,” the government’s motion stated.

In his latest ruling, McDonough wasn’t buying it.

“The IRS failed to respond to (the workers’) repeated FOIA requests, even after (workers’ attorneys) clarified that they were not seeking tax information,” McDonough wrote. “And (workers) were diligent, even going so far as to pursue litigation against the IRS to enforce compliance with the requests.”

The case is currently set for trial next February.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.