Supporters of a prominent businessman and Muslim community leader packed a federal courtroom Friday to ask a judge to spare him prison time for committing fraud in exporting halal beef products to Malaysia and Indonesia.
In testimony, interviews and dozens of letters to U.S. District Judge Linda Reade, they praised Midamar Corp. founder William Aossey Jr., 74, for his generosity and international diplomacy and argued he shouldn't spend the final years behind bars after a life of good deeds.
He has been jailed since July, when jurors convicted him of conspiracy, making false statements on export certificates and wire fraud.
His supporters said the Peace Corp alum once honored by President George H.W. Bush wasn't a threat to the community, and accused prosecutors of seeking an excessive punishment of several years in prison.
"This is way, way out of whack," state Rep. Art Staed of Cedar Rapids, Iowa said Friday, later telling a reporter that he was horrified to see the slight, white-haired grandfather in an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles. He had written a letter saying a prison term for Aossey was unwarranted and would be a loss to the community.
Reade heard several hours of arguments and testimony before delaying her sentencing decision until Feb. 25. She signaled she was unlikely to grant leniency, accusing Aossey of giving false testimony during the trial and refusing to accept responsibility for his crimes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy asked for a prison sentence for Aossey, saying his age and past good deeds shouldn't get him off the hook for criminal offenses driven by greed. He said Aossey was known internationally for his pioneering halal food business and abused the trust of foreign governments.
Aossey has admitted he directed employees to falsify packaging labels so Midamar could ship beef products to Malaysia and Indonesia that did not meet those countries strict standards for halal, or slaughter practices based on Islamic law. But he has disputed any criminal intent, saying the company committed administrative violations that were corrected.
The products at issue had come from a Minnesota slaughterhouse that wasn't approved for importation by Malaysia or Indonesia. Instead, Midamar employees removed that slaughterhouse's establishment number and replaced them with ones falsely showing that the products had come from an Omaha, Nebraska, slaughterhouse that had been approved to export to them. In all, 22 shipments worth more than $740,000 were at issue.
Midamar, founded in 1974 in Aossey's hometown of Cedar Rapids, is considered a leader in the halal food industry. Aossey said Friday that he had shipped millions of pounds of food around the world without problems and that 22 shipments shouldn't mar his entire career.
Former Cedar Rapids city councilor Chuck Swore said he's been friends with Aossey for 60 years. He said it was "pathetic" for a government investigator to describe Aossey as a "sneaky" and "greasy" businessman who cut corners.
He and others said Aossey gave many people jobs, helped refugees and flood victims and built a bridge between the large Muslim community in Cedar Rapids and the rest of society.
"In my opinion, Bill still has much to contribute," former Iowa Lt. Gov. Robert Anderson wrote to Reade. "I urge you to consider a significantly reduced sentence to provide him with that opportunity."