Now, at 73, Aossey, of Cedar Rapids, could find himself on another adventure: Serving time in federal prison.
Earlier this summer, Aossey was convicted of scheming to export falsely labeled halal products. His trial was complicated by a separate investigation, which revealed links to another Iowa family that tried to smuggle guns to Lebanon inside a shipping container owned by Aossey’s company, Midamar Corp.
In July, U.S. District Judge Linda Reade found Aossey guilty of 15 felonies including conspiracy, falsifying export certificates, and wire fraud. Reade concluded that Aossey was planning to ship beef to Indonesia and Malaysia and falsely market it as “halal,” which literally means “permissable.”
Meat is considered “halal” if it is slaughtered and prepared according to strict Islamic laws. The animal must be killed by a Muslim, for example, who utters the name of God before slitting the animal’s throat with a very sharp knife. Then the carcass must be hung and drained of all blood before it is butchered.
Midamar told customers all its cattle were slaughtered at a licensed facility Nebraska, where trained Muslim slaughtermen would recite the Tasmia prayer during operations, according to court documents. In reality, investigators found that Midamar’s beef came from a Minnesota plant, where cattle were killed by shooting a pointed bolt into their brains, often without Muslim slaughtermen present.
Midamar employees were found to be removing labels that correctly identified the origins of the meat, and replacing them with new labels, court documents show. They also falsified information on export paperwork.
Earlier this month, Aossey’s sons Jalel Aossey, 40, and Yahya Aossey, 45, pleaded guilty to related crimes. Midamar and another Aossey company, Islamic Services of America, Inc., are facing fines, as well. As part of a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, the companies have each been ordered to pay $600,000 in fines. The companies could also face probation, additional fines and forfeitures.
“Midamar accepts responsibility” for the charges “and strives to continuously improve its processes and communications,” Midamar said in a statement on its website. “This agreement will resolve all matters, set the record straight, and enable the company to focus on delivering quality food products and franchise supply chain solutions for our customers internationally.”
While the companies acknowledged the violations, they argued that they should have been handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as regulatory infractions, rather than pursued by prosecutors as criminal acts. The harsher treatment coincides with a separate investigation that unearthed connections between Bill Aossey and another Iowa family charged with smuggling arms to the Middle East.
In that case, the individuals – who contract with Midamar — had stashed guns and ammunition in a Lebanon-bound shipping container owned by Midamar. The container was filled with donated supplies for Syrian refugees that had been collected by the Cedar Rapids community.
Investigators intercepted the munitions in Norfolk, Va., between March and May of 2014. Midamar’s offices were searched in May.
Since his conviction in July, Bill Aossey has been ordered to remain in federal custody while awaiting sentencing. Reade concluded that he was a flight risk because of his connections to the individuals targeted in the gun-running case.
No additional charges have been brought against Aossey or Midamar, and friends and family have dismissed the idea that he is involved in gun smuggling. In recent weeks, they have staged small protests outside the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, calling on Reade to permit Aossey to post bond.
“We have been United States citizens and Iowans for 135 years,” said Bill’s older brother, Joe Aossey, 79. “They took an opportunity here to mix a little Islamophobia into this business.”
Joe Aossey, a veteran of the U.S. Army, added that his brother “has always been a great ambassador for the United States.”
The Aossey family is considered a leader in Iowa’s historic Muslim and Arab-American communities. Joe and Bill Aossey’s father donated the land that became North America’s first Muslim cemetery, and the family is credited with financing restoration of the city’s Mother Mosque of America, North America’s oldest Muslim house of worship.
Interestingly, the halal case isn’t Iowa’s first rodeo with rogue followers of religious dietary laws. Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years in prison after a 2008 raid on his kosher slaughterhouse in Postville lead to a conviction for bank fraud. Nearly 400 immigrant workers were also found to be working under falsified documents.
Judge Reade also presided over Rubashkin’s case, and her handling of it has come under fire. Critics noted that Reade imposed a prison term two years longer than prosecutors requested, effectively sentencing Rubashkin, a 50-year-old first-time, non-violent offender, to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Schuessler is a Chicago-based freelance writer covering the Midwest.