USA: Criminal convictions cloud Aossey legacy

CEDAR RAPIDS — A 2006 coffee table book about Iowa devotes parts of four pages to Cedar Rapids’s Aossey family and Midamar, the food company the family created.

After all, the Aosseys were one of the first Muslim families to settle in Iowa in the early Bill-Aossey-copy1900s and helped build the oldest standing North American mosque. Bill Aossey Jr., 74, used his unique position as a Muslim living in America’s breadbasket to tap into a new market of halal food for Muslims around the world.

The Aossey success story was shared broadly for what it said about Iowa’s diversity, character and ingenuity.

But in October 2012, that image took a hit.

That’s when federal agents stormed Midamar, at 1105 60th Ave. SW, to seize records and $450,000. The only clues to the cause of the raid were 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture citations that Midamar has mislabeled or falsified products exported to Malaysia and Indonesia. But company officials had submitted a corrective action plan and believed they were in the clear.

A grand jury indicted Bill Aossey in October 2014 with 19 counts related to misbranding halal meat.

Seven months later, firearms bound for Lebanon were found in a container being shipped from Midamar by another family. Four people without connections to Midamar were charged, but the investigation further tainted the Aosseys.

Iowan politicians who went on trade missions with the Aosseys or previously sought them out for campaign support now shun handshakes and don’t return phone calls, family members said. The company, downsized from 70 to 25 employees since the raid, is limping along with Aossey’s oldest son, Yahya, the only one who likely won’t spend time in prison.

For his part, Bill Aossey, waiting in the Linn County Jail to be sentenced on conspiracy, wire fraud and false statement convictions blames the decline in his family’s fortunes on prejudice against Muslims.

“We’ve been in this country for 100-some years, but after 9/11, there was all this phobia about Islam,” Aossey said. “What is happening on this case is a lineage.”

The accusation is baseless, federal prosecutors said.

“It’s a cheap shot,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Richard Walker said. “It ignores the fact the conduct they engaged in was criminal. Mr. Aossey was found engaging in criminal acts by a federal jury after a full trial.”

All-American upbringing

Aossey, born Sept. 13, 1941, in Cedar Rapids, was the third son born to Yahya Mohamad Aossey, who immigrated from the Lebanon region of Syria to the United States in 1907, and his wife, Maheaba, a Fort Dodge native.

Yahya Aossey initially settled in northwest Iowa, where he worked for German farmers who gave him the American name of William, according to the book “Iowa, Life Changing.” Later, he was able to save money for a horse and buggy, which he used to travel across Iowa as a peddler.

“I heard about his dad — bless his soul — before I came to this country because of how great he was,” said Dr. Mohamed Khowassah, 81, of Iowa City.

Khowassah, born in Egypt, came to the University of Iowa as a dental resident in 1962. The Aosseys regularly invited Muslim students to their house in Cedar Rapids for meals and camaraderie, Khowassah said.

William Yahya Aossey, his brothers and other Muslims built the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids in 1934, “Iowa, Life Changing” reports. Aossey also donated 10 acres of land in Cedar Rapids to build the first Muslim National Cemetery in 1948.

It was in this environment Bill Aossey Jr. grew up, attending Hayes Elementary, Wilson Middle School and Jefferson High School. He wrestled at Jefferson and Cornell College.

Aossey majored in sociology and English at Cornell and was senior class president, he said. He graduated in 1963 and joined the Peace Corps — the first Muslim to do so. In Senegal, Aossey had a variety of assignments, including digging wells and coaching an Olympic wrestling team.

Aossey traveled extensively through the late 1960s before coming home in 1970 to work with his brothers.

Industry innovator

In 1974, Aossey founded Midamar with help from his brother, Joe.

“Shipping halal meat was all new,” recalled Joe’s wife, Laila Aossey, of Cedar Rapids. “In 1975, no one realized how big the markets of Malaysia and Indonesia were.”

These developing countries couldn’t support cattle, but well-to-do Muslims wanted to eat meat, she said. The Aosseys, with connections in many Middle Eastern countries, were in an ideal position to fill that need.

“That business was built on trust,” Laila Aossey said.

Consumers trust halal food companies to provide meat slaughtered according to Islamic standards.

The animal must be alive before slaughter, a sharp knife must be used to cut the animal’s throat, the animal’s blood must be drained before processing and the slaughterer must say a blessing before killing the animal. Muslims dispute other criteria, including whether halal meats should be hormone free or stunned before slaughter.

The Aosseys opened their own certifying agency in the mid-1970s called Islamic Services of America.

Midamar lauded

Midamar became an established part of the Cedar Rapids business community, joining the Eastern Iowa Chapter of the International Traders of Iowa and organizing trade missions. In May 1990, Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush presented Aossey and 10 others with the “E Star” Award for being “outstanding competitors abroad.”

The not-for-profit Systems Unlimited gave Midamar an Employer of the Year award in 2012.

“They won that year because they had quite a few people working there with developmental disabilities and mental health issues,” said Kathy Brooks, the agency’s program administrator. “Midamar went out of their way to find out how to train and work with these individuals to maximize their success.”

Former employee had concerns

Roxann Von Lienen, of Cedar Rapids, oversaw logistics documentation and compliance for the company from 2008 until March, when she took another job.

In the early years, she occasionally suspected things weren’t being done by the books, she said.

“Oftentimes there were things being decided, or questions being asked, that should have been asked of me,” Von Lienen recalled. “They weren’t asking me because they knew I would say no.”

Phil Payne, Midamar’s operations manager at the time, admitted in January to removing and authorizing the removal of labels from beef products from a Minnesota facility not certified to provide halal products to Indonesia and Malaysia and replacing them with labels from a halal-certified facility in Omaha.

The goal was to fill large orders, even if the meat wasn’t all certified halal. Payne, of Ryan, was sentenced last month to three years probation and a $20,000 fine.

Von Lienen faults Payne, but she doesn’t let Aossey off the hook.

“He looked at this from a point of customer service and doing what the customer needed in order to have the customer be serviced, knowing if he couldn’t do it, somebody else could and he’d lose the business,” she said.

Did mislabeling cause harm?

Aossey and his supporters say no one was harmed by Midamar’s mislabeling.

“What damage really has been done?” asked Robert Cable, a Boston resident who has been friends with Aossey since they met in 1967 in Saudi Arabia. “I don’t think any individual has been harmed.”

Sekar Raju, interim associate chairman of management and marketing at Iowa State University, said customers who believe they are buying food adhering to their religious standards often are upset to learn otherwise. McDonald’s agreed to pay $10 million in 2002 to vegetarian and religious groups, including Hindus, for using beef flavoring in French fries, the New York Times reported.

“If it violates their religion, that becomes a big thing,” Raju said.

Joe Cordray, an ISU Extension Meat Specialist, said mislabeling crimes can hurt U.S. beef exports if foreign countries don’t trust the quality of the meat. “You have to have confidence in who you’re doing business with,” Cordray said. “I would think there would be quite a bit of concern.”

Firearms investigation

Federal agents searched Midamar again in May after authorities found a stockpile of firearms and ammunition hidden among goods from a clothing drive for Syria and Lebanon that Midamar sponsored. Four people were arrested — none of them employed by Midamar. One of the defendants, Ali Herz, had rented a house from Aossey in the past and Midamar occasionally shipped construction equipment to Lebanon for Herz’s concrete business, Joe Aossey said.

“Ethnic groups that come here are very clannish when they come here,” he said, adding Bill Aossey helped Herz as a gesture of goodwill to someone who hailed from the homeland of the Aossey ancestors.

Herz took advantage of that goodwill, Joe Aossey said: “Bill had no idea what Ali was doing.”

Waiting in jail

U.S. District Chief Judge Linda Reade ordered Aossey to remain in jail after his July 13 conviction, saying his international connections made him a flight risk. Aossey, still waiting for his sentencing to be scheduled, faces eight to 10 years in prison.

Aossey has turned his eye on the prison system and how the United States spends more to incarcerate citizens than to educate them.

Despite more than 1 million Americans behind bars, the orange jumpsuits worn by inmates at the Linn County Correctional Center aren’t made with inmate labor, they’re sewn abroad, Aossey noted in a letter to The Gazette.

“Really LCCC is not a proper name,” he wrote. “Linn County Center, yes, but absolutely no correction is learned in 24/7 of containment with no productivity.”

Aossey exercises, reads newspapers, makes 15-minute calls to friends and family and receives two visits a week, he said. He’s proud of how his sons, corporate officers for

Midamar receiving the Gulfood Award 2013
Midamar receiving the Gulfood Award 2013

Midamar, have held up under the stress of the investigation.

Jalel and Yahya Aossey pleaded guilty Sept. 11 to their part in the mislabeling scheme. The brothers each face short prison sentences, but Yahya, 45, likely will ask for a deferred judgment, which means he would spend no time in prison unless he gets in other trouble.

Midamar’s future

Midamar continues to ship meat and other products to the Middle East, including Malaysia and Indonesia. but the sales volume was cut in half, Joe Aossey said.

“The sales manager says if we can stay out of the newspaper, we’ll be fine,” he said.

Von Lienen, who left Midamar in March, predicts the company will endure.

“It’s persevered through a lot of storms. You know when Mad Cow disease took place, it survived. When 9/11 happened, it survived,” she.

In fact, if the company called, Von Lienen would work there again.

The Aossey family may never regain its sterling reputation. But they have many individual supporters.

“He did make a mistake,” Cable, of Boston, said of Bill Aossey. “But this mistake on the scale of crimes is completely out of proportion to the punishment.”