CLARK KAUFFMAN

The Des Moines Register via Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Henry's Turkey Service is denying allegations that it employed the mentally retarded men who lived in an Atalissa bunkhouse for most of the past 35 years.

The company filed court papers last week arguing that the Atalissa men "were all employees of West Liberty Foods while working at the West Liberty plant."

Henry's Turkey Service, a Texas labor broker, sent hundreds of mentally retarded men to labor camps scattered throughout the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. One of those labor camps was in Atalissa, where Henry's placed at least 65 men in a bunkhouse rented from the city.

The men worked at the West Liberty turkey-processing plant. Henry's kept most of the men's wages as compensation for room, board and care, which meant the men's net wages often averaged 41 cents an hour. The bunkhouse was shut down 11 months ago, with state officials citing fire-safety concerns.

In November, the U.S. Department of Labor sued Henry's Turkey Service; an affiliate, Hill Country Farms; and one of the companies' two owners, Kenneth Henry. The department alleges violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and seeks back wages for 37 workers plus interest and damages.

The attorney for the defendants, David Scieszinski, did not return calls to his office this week.

Henry's also claims in its response to the lawsuit that the Atalissa workers were "residents of the state of Texas" even though they lived and worked in Iowa for decades. In its court filing, the company did not make clear why residency was a relevant issue.

The company's claims about employment aren't consistent with other federal and state records.

The workers' W-2 forms, obtained by The Des Moines Register last year, list each man's employer as "Hill Country Farms." Each Atalissa worker's address is the same on all of the W-2 forms: Route 3, Box 240 in Goldthwaite, Texas -- the home of Jane Ann Johnson, co-owner of Henry's Turkey Service.

In addition, Johnson wrote to Iowa Workforce Development last year and stated that Henry's and Hill Country Farms -- not West Liberty Foods -- was providing the legally required unemployment insurance for "our employees at Atalissa."

And in 2003, after the U.S. Department of Labor found that some of the men were owed back wages, it fell to Henry's -- not West Liberty Foods -- to pay the back wages.

In their response to the lawsuit, the defendants are also taking the position that they "provided no rehabilitative services" to the Atalissa workers. That claim is likely to raise questions as to why Henry's routinely deducted substantial sums of money from each worker's paycheck for what it called "kind care."

For example, bunkhouse resident Keith Brown worked 149 hours in February 2008, earning $1,124 at the plant. Henry's deducted from Brown's pay $487 for room and board, plus $572 for kind care. That left Brown with $65 in earnings for the month.

If the bunkhouse residents needed rehabilitative services that weren't being provided, that could also lead to allegations of dependent-adult abuse, which is a crime in Iowa.

It's also a crime to house more than three dependent adults in an unlicensed group setting. The bunkhouse was never licensed by the state, and after it was closed the state determined 21 of the residents were dependent adults.

Typically, it falls to county prosecutors to enforce Iowa's dependent-adult abuse law and the state law that deals with unlicensed group homes. Muscatine County prosecutors have not filed any criminal charges against Henry's or its owners, saying they want to wait until all other agencies have completed their investigations.

The Department of Labor, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals completed their investigations last year, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Social Security Administration have not disclosed the status of their investigations.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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