RICHMOND — Tyson Foods has asked Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Corey Stewart to kill a TV ad, one that slams Republican rival Ed Gillespie for work his Washington lobbying firm did for the poultry giant as it faced criminal charges related to undocumented employees.
Stewart has seized on Gillespie’s ties to Tyson in the homestretch of the GOP nominating contest, which will be decided in a statewide primary Tuesday.
“When Tyson Foods was indicted for human smuggling, who’s the first guy they called? Ed Gillespie,” the 30-second spot begins. “Gillespie was paid $1.1 million to make excuses for trafficking illegal aliens and lobby for amnesty.”
The ad ran statewide this week on Fox News, according to the Stewart campaign.
Tyson hired Quinn Gillespie & Associates in December 2001, just days before the U.S. Justice Department charged it 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 eventually acquitted, something the ad does not mention.
“You are certainly entitled to make immigration part of your campaign for governor; however, we respectively [sic] ask that you stop disparaging the reputation of Tyson Foods by immediately discontinuing your false and misleading ads and public statements about our company,” Paul T. Kirchner, vice president and associate general counsel for Tyson, wrote in a letter Friday to Stewart campaign manager Spence Rogers.
“While Tyson Foods was indicted on immigration charges in 2001, the company was later cleared by a federal jury of all charges,” the letter continues. “We did hire Quinn-Gillespie during that time, however, it was to help us with public relations, not lobbying. And, most of the work done by the agency did not involve Ed Gillespie.”
Stewart spokesman Noel Fritsch stood by the ad and accused Tyson of trying to “silence Corey.”
“It’s quite obvious that Ed Gillespie is desperate to keep us from talking about his record of helping smuggle illegal aliens into the country to work for low wages,” Fritsch said. “This is about Ed at the end of the day. . . . It’s about Ed not wanting to come clean about his horrible record on immigration.”
Gillespie and Stewart are in a three-way primary with state Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Stewart, who led a crackdown on illegal immigration as chairman of the Prince William County Board a decade ago, has run as a hard-liner on illegal immigrants, vowing to “hunt them down.”
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to President George W. Bush, has walked a finer line. He advocated for 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, but he says he never supported the amnesty aspect of the deal. He promises to be a “governor for all Virginians” in TV spots but uses images of a massive border wall and a handcuffed illegal immigrant in more targeted Facebook ads.
Tyson retained Gillespie’s firm through 2007, paying $1.1 million over that time 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, registered to handle issues that included “amnesty proposals,” “immigration reform,” “country of origin labeling,” and “labor and workforce issues.”
Gillespie told The Washington Post in May that he did not recall doing any work for Tyson, one of many clients of the firm he left in 2007.
Stewart’s ad opens with an image of a New York Times headline from 2001: “Tyson Foods Indicted in Plan To Smuggle Illegal Workers.”
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said the campaign did not ask Tyson to write the letter but echoed the company’s criticism.
Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, confirmed that.
“We’ve not been in contact with the Gillespie campaign, nor with Mr. Gillespie at all,” he said. “We’re simply defending our reputation.”