Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is critical of federal, state and local officials following the revelation that a group of 21 mentally retarded men were living in a run down century-old bunkhouse in Atalissa while working at the West Liberty turkey plant. Harkin, a Democrat, wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act and has long been an advocate for people with disabilities.
"This is shocking, this is absolutely shocking that in this day and age, something like this would happen. And for everyone to try and wash their hands of it," Harkin says, "the city of Atalisa is trying to wash their hands of it, you have the mayor saying he’s never been in the building and the city owns the building. This is inexcusable."
Harkin says the Texas company hiring the men and then put them up substandard housing makes the men "sort of like indentured servants." A company in Texas called "Henry’s Turkey Service" was serving as the men’s caretakers. The men were paid a small wage and were charged $1,000 a month for room and board.
"This is pretty closely akin to slavery folks, the way this operation was run, where they worked for this place in Texas and then for West Liberty Foods to say they had nothing to do with it, they didn’t pay these people," Harkin says. He says West Liberty Foods had a lot to do with it and this is "inexcusable." Harkin also questions the role of state and federal officials.
"I also wonder about state inspectors, where were they inspecting this facility? And federal inspectors? Something’s not adding up here, that this would slip through the cracks for 30 years, and noone would do something about it." Harkin says. Harkin says he doesn’t have all the information, but is getting more and more all the time and "there’s going to be repercussions on this one." Harkin believes that those who ran the facility should be punished.
Harkin says he’s almost convinced that "crimes have been committed, and these people ought to be punished to the full extent of the law for what they have done." He says they have to make it up to the men in terms of back pay and what they have coming to them. Harkin says everything needs to be aired out and those responsible need to be held accountable.
The 21 mentally retarded men were moved to a residential facility in Waterloo Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (DIA), says his agency is seeking a criminal charge against Henry’s Turkey Service for operating a health care facility without a license.
Additionally, the DIA’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit is working with authorities in Texas to determine if there was dependent adult abuse, specifically financial exploitation.