WASHINGTON (DTN)--Tyson Foods Inc. and six former managers pleaded innocent Jan. 24 to federal charges of conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants to work at the company's poultry plants, reported the Associated Press.

A federal magistrate told them to get ready for a February 2003 trial.

Tyson attorney Mark Hobson said a trial would not support prosecutors' contentions of a company conspiracy, but instead would show immigrant smuggling by government undercover agents.

"The case stems from a three-year undercover sting operation that, we believe, resulted in the employment of approximately 50 undocumented workers delivered by government agents to fewer than five Tyson facilities," the Arkansas-based company said in a statement.

The executives, accompanied by their attorneys, arrived separately at the U.S. marshal's office where they were fingerprinted and photographed.

"People who know me know there are two sides to the story. We need our day in court," Spencer Mabe, 50, of Gainesville, GA, a former manager at a Tyson plant in Shelbyville, said in a courthouse hallway after the two-hour hearing.

Arkansas-based Tyson, one of the world's largest poultry, beef and pork processors, has 120,000 employees and sales of $25 billion last year.

A Dec. 11 indictment accused Tyson and the other defendants of conspiring to smuggle illegal laborers. The indictment implicated 15 plants in Tennessee, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. MacCoon, the chief prosecutor, acknowledged the 2 1/2-year investigation involves work by undercover agents, and he told U.S. Magistrate William Carter a trial will likely take about two months.

MacCoon said government evidence includes 422 undercover audio tapes, 36 videotapes and 360,000 pages of documents subpoenaed from Tyson.

Robert Hash, vice president of the company's division for retail fresh meat, and Gerald Lankford, a former human resources manager of the retail fresh division, are charged, as are four former managers at the Shelbyville plant. Each defendant was released on $100,000 bond.

Prosecutors have said a conviction on a charge of importing illegal immigrants for commercial advantage can carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The company aided the immigrants by obtaining false documents so they could work at Tyson plants "under the false pretense of being legally employable," according to the indictment. Prosecutors also said the managers hoped the cheap labor would help Tyson cut costs and meet production goals.

Tyson executives have accused federal prosecutors of "improper racial stereotyping" and said the case involves a few managers who were acting outside of company policy. A Tyson executive also said the indictment followed the company's refusal to pay the government a $100 million penalty to avoid trial.

Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra called the claim about the proposed penalty "rubbish."

Amador Anchondo-Rascon, a former employee at Tyson's Shelbyville plant, pleaded guilty as part of a sentencing deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.

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