Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for Virginia governor and chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, attacks opponent Ed Gillespie at a news conference on May 30, 2017. He cited a Washington Post report that Gillespie was paid more than $1 million to lobby for Tyson Foods when it was charged with illegally smuggling Mexicans into the country to work at processing plants. The company was acquitted. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Corey Stewart on Tuesday accused one of his rivals of participating in “human trafficking,” a claim he based on work Ed Gillespie’s lobbying firm did for Tyson Foods when the poultry giant was charged with smuggling Mexicans across the border to work in its U.S. plants.

“In essence, Ed Gillespie is complicit in smuggling illegal aliens into this country,” Stewart said. “He’s complicit in human trafficking.”

Stewart, who faces Gillespie and state Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) in the June 13 GOP primary, made the claim one day after The Washington Post reported that Tyson paid Quinn Gillespie & Associates more than $1 million for help on a range of issues, including the criminal case, which ended in acquittal.

Gillespie’s campaign dismissed Stewart’s claim — which came exactly two weeks before the primary — as a baseless attack.

“Corey Stewart’s campaign has been a constant stream of fabrication and falsehoods,” Gillespie spokeswoman Abbi Sigler wrote in an email. “Tyson Foods retained Quinn Gillespie in 2001 to provide public relations services dealing with charges for which a jury later found the company not guilty. As The Washington Post reported, Tyson’s made clear the firm was not retained to lobby on the issue and Ed was not involved in the day-to-day work for them.”

Polls show Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and onetime adviser to President George W. Bush, with a double-digit lead over Stewart, who is chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and Wagner heading into the homestretch. Gillespie left the lobbying firm in 2007. Many political analysts think Stewart turned himself into a fringe candidate months ago by making the preservation of the state’s Confederate monuments the central issue of his campaign.

But Stewart sees an opportunity to reset the race by playing up Gillespie’s ties to Tyson, noting that a sizable chunk of the electorate is undecided or even unaware of the race.

“Now people are tuning in,” he said, suggesting that voters will turn away from Gillespie “when people find out that Ed Gillespie has been complicit in human trafficking of illegal immigrants into this country, illegal immigrants who are murdering and battering and raping American citizens.”

On Facebook, Stewart’s campaign promoted The Post story under an inaccurate headline of its own making: “BREAKING: Gillespie Exposed for Receiving $1M+++ for Colluding with Illegal Alien Human Trafficker.” The actual Post headline was, “In Va. governor’s race, Gillespie in a tight spot on immigration in Trump era.”

Tyson hired Quinn Gillespie & Associates in December 2001, just days before the U.S. Justice Department charged the poultry giant with illegally smuggling Mexicans into the country to work at processing plants in Virginia and elsewhere. Tyson acknowledged some smuggling at the time but maintained that it had been the work of rogue employees and was not sanctioned by corporate leaders. The company was acquitted.

(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Tyson paid Gillespie’s firm more than $1.1 million from 2001 to 2007 to lobby Bush’s White House, the Senate and the House on a range of issues, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Gillespie was listed as a Tyson lobbyist for several of those years. He was registered to handle issues that included “amnesty proposals,” “immigration reform,” “country of origin labeling,” and “labor and workforce issues,” according to those forms.

Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, told The Post last week that the company hired Gillespie’s firm “for public affairs consulting, not lobbying, when our company was facing immigration charges. . . . Most of the work done by Quinn Gillespie for our company did not involve Mr. Gillespie.”

In response to Stewart’s comments Tuesday, Mickelson issued a statement saying: “We have zero tolerance for employing anyone who is not authorized to work in this country and use all available tools provided by the U.S. government to check the documents of the people we hire.”

Even without this latest development, immigration has been a tricky issue for Gillespie, who hails from the party’s establishment wing and supported the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration initiative in the U.S. Senate that called for tighter border security as well as a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Gillespie now says he never supported the amnesty aspect of the proposal; he says he wanted a pathway to legal status, not citizenship.

Gillespie has struck a “big tent” tone in TV commercials, which have him promising to be a “governor for all Virginians,” while his Facebook ads show images of a massive border wall and a handcuffed illegal immigrant.

Stewart also tried to appeal to various GOP constituencies as he blasted Gillespie’s work for Tyson, by turns describing the illegal Tyson workers as murderous and exploited.

He spoke at a morning conference at a county office building, surrounded by photos of Virginians who he said had been killed by illegal immigrants.

“If it weren’t for the efforts of Ed Gillespie and Tyson, some of these people would still be alive today,” Stewart said.

Asked whether he had any evidence that illegal immigrants who had worked at Tyson plants had killed anyone, Stewart said, “No, but I know a significant portion of those who come here illegally, they have criminal backgrounds and commit crimes.”

At the same time, Stewart suggested that Gillespie had helped to exploit the immigrants, saying that they were smuggled into the country to work for wages and under conditions that no American would accept.

“There’s another victim, too, and that is the illegal immigrants themselves,” Stewart said. “They’re paid next to nothing, and they’re forced to work in conditions that no American would work in. . . . And he’s been making a million dollars.”