The chairman of IBP Inc., the nation's largest meatpacking firm, admitted yesterday that officials kept two sets of worker injury records but said the company did not commit perjury in earlier testimony about the logs.
"We bungled it badly," Robert Peterson told a skeptical House panel, conceding to mistakes in previous testimony.
"It was inaccurate, but it wasn't perjury," Peterson said.
Peterson testified at a hearing called after IBP told the House Government Operations subcommittee on employment that its testimony on May 6 contained inaccuracies.
On May 6, Peterson claimed that IBP did not keep two sets of injury records -- a key point because of allegations it was under-reporting injuries to avoid full-scale safety inspections.
In July, the Labor Department announced a record $2.59 million fine against IBP for under-reporting injuries. IBP has appealed.
IBP officials testified yesterday there were periods between 1982 and 1986 when IBP kept a log of all dispensary visits to its headquarters plant at Dakota City, Neb., and another of injuries that must be reported to the government.
Peterson, vice president Daniel Foley and Jerry Simpson, former IBP medical director, said the misstatements stemmed from a misunderstanding of questions about when the lists were compiled. Simpson said he thought the questions referred only to 1986 and only to the plant's North Dispensary.
Subcommittee members appeared dissatisfied with the explanation. They said the questions were clear and IBP officials should have comprehended them at an all-day meeting held to check the transcript of the May 6 hearing.
Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who mentioned the possibility of perjury when he called the hearing, said IBP corrected the record "only when the bloodhounds were at your door."
Lantos has said the question of asking for a Justice Department investigation would be decided after the hearing. An aide said an immediate decision was not likely.
"If your company was a presidential candidate, you'd be out of the race," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who questioned how vigorously IBP leaders had tried to get the facts straight.
"What we've got here, frankly, is a dodge," Frank said after Foley and Simpson each were described as not being responsible for record-keeping. Foley said the plant manager was responsible but said he could not remember asking him if there was an additional set of records.
Peterson said misstatements May 6 and in a May 28 letter were the result of "a dichotomy between what one was saying and one was hearing." He identified Foley and Simpson as the men with the communication breakdown.
"How embarrassed do you think we are?" Peterson asked. "We bumbled it badly."
The hearing was sometimes contentious. Lantos repeatedly told an IBP lawyer he would have to speak under oath if he wanted to make statements, rather than advise Peterson, and said there had been "carefully orchestrated attempts" to cancel the hearing.
Peterson would not answer questions about carpal tunnel syndrome among IBP workers, a crippling disease caused by repetitive motion.
In response to questions, Peterson said he did not direct IBP officials to refuse to let Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors into the Dakota City plant last December.
The Labor Department announced the $2.59 million fine against IBP on July 21, claiming it found 1,038 instances in which IBP willfully failed to report job-related injuries and illnesses at Dakota City in 1985 and 1986. It said 832 of the unreported injuries were added to the logs while inspectors were getting a subpoena.
IBP, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., is the largest meatpacker in America, employing 18,000 workers at 14 plants in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas, Texas, Idaho and Washington state.