Kenneth Henry denied Monday that he struck one of the disabled men who worked for him in Texas and Iowa.
Henry is owner and president of Henry’s Turkey Service, which is on trial this week in U.S. District Court, Davenport. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing the Texas-based company in the civil case, claiming the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in its treatment of 32 of the company’s mentally disabled workers who lived inside an old converted school in Atalissa, Iowa.
EEOC attorney Robert Canino said one of the 32 men, Gene Berg, said Henry had struck him while working in Texas. Canino said he decided not to call Berg to testify because Berg said he feared Henry and learned Henry would be in the courtroom.
Henry denied he ever struck Berg. He reiterated his denial outside the courthouse.
“You heard my testimony,” Henry said.
Henry declined outside to say anything publicly to the disabled workers or their families.
“Anything I say to them, I want to say to their face,” he said. “I’ve said enough.”
His lawyer, David Scieszinski, had no comment.
Earlier, Henry testified he wasn’t aware of claims that his mentally disabled employees were being physically abused by two of the company’s supervisors inside the rural Iowa bunkhouse. He also blamed the deteriorating condition of the bunkhouse on one of the supervisors, Randy Neubauer.
Henry testified that the company’s previous owner, T.H. Johnson, who lived at the Atalissa bunkhouse himself, first hired Neubauer to do maintenance work, which he did for 16 years.
Henry blamed Neubauer for not fixing the leaking roof or the boarded-up windows that let in a cold draft in winter months.
“That was part of Randy’s job,” Henry said.
“You’re going to blame it on Randy?” Canino asked.
“That’s kind of a harsh word, but yes, sir,” Henry said.
Neubauer testified last week that he had asked Henry for money to fix the roof and do other repairs, and Henry refused. Neubauer said he even temporarily quit his job over the dispute.
Throughout his testimony that stretched almost the entire day Monday, Henry repeatedly accused Neubauer of lying.
State agencies raided the bunkhouse in February 2009 after receiving a tip. The bunkhouse had rodent and insect infestations and a mold problem throughout, state officials have testified. The state fire marshal ordered it shut down.
Henry said Monday he wasn’t aware of the infestation.
“I heard no complaints about any bug infestation,” he said, adding that his company hired exterminators to do work “regularly.”
Henry last visited the bunkhouse in October 2007, he testified. He took control of the company after Johnson died in 2008.
Canino asked about Johnson’s alleged alcoholism. Henry denied that caused his death.
Johnson was president of Hill Country Farms, and Henry said that company merged with Henry’s Turkey Service, which is based in Goldthwaite, Texas. Lawyers are referring to Henry’s company by both names in court.
Henry said 1,500 mentally disabled men have worked for him in more than 45 years. He said his company had “a very good reputation” in Texas for hiring young, mentally challenged men who previously lived in state institutions or “off the street” and were brought to Henry’s through the Texas Rehabilitation Commission.
“When these individuals came out of the state school, they really didn’t know how to do anything,” he said. “The boys learned to do a good job, and they did a good job.”
Some of the disabled men, such as Berg, worked for Henry’s for 30 years or more.
Henry’s moved the men to Iowa by the late 1970s. Henry’s supplied the men as contract workers to West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa. The company converted an old school into a bunkhouse in Atalissa, which is about 40 miles west of the Quad-Cities. The bunkhouse also was partially owned and maintained by the city of Atalissa.
Henry said he made four visits to Atalissa in 2007. He made “several” trips in the five years before that. It’s unclear by his testimony how many total trips he made to Atalissa.
He said his visits would last a week to 10 days.
“I took every meal with the boys,” he said. “I made every opportunity to fellowship. Every boy went through Texas. I got to know all the boys very well.”
He referred to the disabled men as “boys” throughout his testimony. Many of the men are in their 40s and 50s.
Henry said he has maintained contact with the father of one of the workers. He said that worker agreed to a contract with Henry’s in 1990 that paid him $65 a month, or 41 cents an hour, and that he would be paid that amount regardless of how many hours he worked. The same payment system was in place for all the 32 disabled workers, and it’s been that way since Henry began hiring disabled men in the 1960s, he said.
He said no one ever complained about the pay.
By contast, Neubauer testified last week that a typical worker at a turkey processing plant would make from $10 to $20 an hour.
Johnson, who lived in an apartment inside the bunkhouse, treated the workers as his own children, according to Henry. Johnson took them on weekend outings, on shopping trips to the Quad-Cities and to a local bar for drinks on occasion, he testified.
Henry said Neubauer became the men’s sole supervisor after Johnson became ill in 2007. He added that Neubauer visited Texas in 2008 to “assure” Henry that the men in Iowa were well taken care of.
Henry testified he couldn’t travel to Iowa in 2008 or 2009 because he had suffered five heart attacks.
Henry said he received only one complaint of Neubauer hitting one of Henry’s disabled workers and that was at the West Liberty turkey processing plant. The plant asked that Neubauer be terminated, and Henry said he agreed, but kept Neubauer on as the men’s supervisor in the bunkhouse.
According to previous testimony, Neubauer and another supervisor, Danny Miles, assaulted at least 20 of the disabled workers. Neubauer has admitted to assaulting two of them but denied the other allegations.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office will not criminally prosecute the company or any of its supervisors, a spokesman said Friday.
Sherri Brown, the sister of one of the disabled workers, James Keith Brown, said outside the courthouse Monday that the workers were treated like “cattle.”
“It’s like they don’t count,” Brown said. “No one gives a damn about the mentally challenged.”
The trial continues today with closing arguments.