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Misconduct by Agriprocessors’ PR Firm Has Rabbi Considering Legal Options
Answering media inquiries and consulting with an attorney wasn’t exactly how Rabbi Morris Allen wanted to spend his vacation. When he learned, however, that someone associated with a New York-based public relations firm hired by Agriprocessors was impersonating him online, he knew his vacation plans were subject to change.
“What’s ironic is that [Agriprocessors] is currently being investigated, and there are two plant supervisors sitting in jail for encouraging people to use false identities,” Allen said. “Now the Agriprocessors’ PR firm believes it is acceptable to just take someone else’s identity and run with it. It is outrageous to say the least.”
Allen, founder of a movement to create ethical standards for the production of kosher food known as Hekhsher Tzedek and resident of St. Paul, Minn., is a prominent critic of Agriprocessors. The comments attributed to Allen were posted in response to writing on FailedMessiah.com, a Minnesota-based blog run by Shmarya Rosenberg that has taken a strict stance against the Rubashkin family, owners of Agriprocessors. The first comment featured Allen’s name, spelled incorrectly. The second was posted while the real Allen presided over his aunt’s funeral in Omaha, Neb.
“When I first learned of it, I was initially very concerned just about my own personal well-being to be honest with you,” Allen said. “If this is the level of behavior that is going on now — just taking people’s identities and using them — what would they do as the stakes were raised? Subsequently, being on vacation, I’m less worried about myself. But I’m still somewhat outraged that I’ve never received a formal apology or that Hekhsher Tzedek has never received a formal apology.”
When blog owner Rosenberg researched the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, or numerical identification assigned to computers when they connect to the internet, he learned that the person leaving the comments was logged on to a computer that was connected to the public relation firm’s network.
The firm in question — 5W Public Relations — was hired by Agriprocessors last month in an effort to stymie rising public sentiment against the company, especially within the Jewish community. The firm was recently heralded in a leading trade magazine as having a “BS-free approach,” and has an extensive client list that includes Fannie Mae, Pamela Anderson, Def Jam Interactive, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, Pastor John Hagee, the American Jewish Congress, the Christian Coalition, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Shalom TV, Christians United for Israel, and the American Bible Society.
Ronn Torossian, chief executive officer of 5W, acknowledges the incident occurred and points to corporate growing pains as a portion of the cause.
“… my [Internet Technology] Department investigated accusations which we have now learned to be true,” Torossian told Iowa Independent. “A senior staff member failed to be transparent in dealing with client matters. He has taken full responsibility. Growing companies often have problems in their expansion, and we continue to strive for the highest performance. We have instituted internal measures to ensure this cannot happen again. We continue to strive for the highest ethical standards.”
Torossian also expressed his firm’s determination to protect Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut.
“This battle is not about blogging,” he said. “It is, however, about protecting the highest levels of kashrut in the Jewish community. We, as a firm, feel personally and professionally passionate about these, and related issues. Critics of traditional Judaism have chosen to smear the largest provider of the highest kashrut meat in the world. We stand with protecting kashrut.”
Allen said he and the Hekhsher Tzedek organization, having already been in contact with an attorney, are just as determined to follow this incident to its conclusion.
“I do believe there will be some action taken,” Allen said. “I don’t know if that will be in the form of a suit, but we will definitely be in contact with 5W. … Instead of dealing with the message of Hekhsher Tzedek, which is a compelling message for many of us in the Jewish community who want to keep kosher and who want to ensure that the food we are buying is produced in a way that not only adheres to ritual but also ethical standards, Agriprocessors has decided that it is much easier to attack the messenger. I find that to be appalling.”
When originally notified of the fraudulent comments, representatives with 5W denied the allegations. Shortly thereafter, the comments were acknowledged, but the firm claimed they were made by an intern who had subsequently been fired. Only after further investigation proved some comments were posted from the firm’s offices and the home of a senior vice president, Juda Engelmayer, did Torossian admit the full episode.
In addition to the postings at FailedMessiah.com and other Jewish blogs, Engelmayer also used a home account to impersonate the grassroots Jewish organization Uri L’Tzedek on Essential Estrogen, the personal blog maintained by this reporter. The comment, made in response to an article detailing the indictment of two Agriprocessors’ supervisors, was the full text of the Uri L’Tzedek press release that lifted the group’s boycott on Rubashkin labels. The comment was posted nearly 10 hours after another thread had already announced the boycott being lifted.
Jim Fallon, a person to which Agriprocessors management had previously directed press inquiries, told Iowa Independent that his firm, CMA, had not done work for the company for nearly three weeks.
“CMA is not involved with any public relations activities involving Agriprocessors’ online presence,” Fallon wrote in e-mail. “Our role was to help the company communicate the activities and decisions made to enhance its immigration compliance in response to the ICE worksite enforcement action. We have not been engaged in any communications activities with Agriprocessors since July 1, 2008.”
Although Menachem Lubinsky, a spokesman for Agriprocessors and chief executive officer of the kosher industry consulting firm Lubicom, originally told The Jewish Forward that he expected 5W to deal with “negative publicity and blogs,” he had no such comments when contacted by Iowa Independent.
“My firm has been and is still doing public relations work for Agriprocessors, and we are the contact for media inquiries,” Lubinsky wrote in an e-mail. “On the subject of 5WPR, the company will have no further information on this subject.”
Rosenberg’s research into the IP addresses used to post comments on his blog indicates that at least 40 comments were made from computers on the 5W network. In addition to Allen, two other individuals known to that blogging community were impersonated.