Guilty plea in hiring of illegal immigrants | Fence company to forfeit millions; execs face prison
Union Tribune (2006-12-15) Onell R. Soto
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A company that built fences at military bases and along the border in San Diego pleaded guilty yesterday to hiring illegal immigrants in an unusual case in which it agreed to forfeit $4.7 million and two of its executives face imprisonment.
The admission by Riverside-based Golden State Fence Co. involves what a federal official said is the largest penalty ever brought against an employer in this type of criminal prosecution.
The case also represents a rare instance in which employers of illegal immigrants face incarceration, said Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge of the San Diego office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"This is the largest criminal forfeiture in a work site case that I'm aware of," Unzueta said. "Nobody can put their finger on another case where a corporate officer actually did jail time."
Prosecutors routinely persuade judges to imprison people who repeatedly enter the country illegally, but sending employers of illegal immigrants to prison is "extremely rare," said Carol Lam, the U.S. Attorney in San Diego.
Golden State and two of its executives admitted in San Diego federal court that they repeatedly hired undocumented workers deported after raids even though authorities warned them not to.
Company founder and President Melvin Kay Jr. and Vice President Michael Mc Laughlin
, who ran Golden State's Oceanside office, are facing at least six months in prison under the terms of a plea agreement. The maximum sentence they might have faced was five years.
Defense lawyers said they will ask for more lenient sentences at a hearing scheduled for March 28 before U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz.
The case comes as federal officials are ratcheting up criminal investigations into the hiring of illegal immigrants. Raids on meat processing plants in six states this week led to more than 1,200 arrests.
Last year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. paid what is the largest civil penalty for hiring illegal immigrants -- $11 million -- in a settlement with federal officials to avoid criminal charges.
Twelve contractors who provided janitors to Wal-Mart agreed to criminal forfeitures of $4 million as part of that case.
Golden State garnered millions of dollars in federal contracts, including projects at North Island Naval Air Station. In the late 1990s, the company built more than a mile of fencing along the U.S.- Mexico border in Otay Mesa.
Based on payroll information gathered in raids in 1999, 2004 and 2005, federal investigators estimated that one-quarter to one-third of the company's 600 to 750 workers probably were in the country illegally. Thirty-seven workers were arrested.
Many of the workers gave the company fraudulent documents when asked to verify their legal status, and some were using other people's paperwork.
In 2001, Moskowitz sentenced a man who knowingly hired an illegal immigrant to work at a hotel to four days in custody, which the defendant had already served. In that case, the defendant told investigators that he knew the man he was hiring didn't have permission to work here.
Criminal cases against employers are rare because it's difficult for authorities to prove that employers know the people they hire don't have work permits, Lam said.
A 1986 federal law requires employers to ask workers for identification verifying their employment status. But employers don't have to verify authenticity and complain it's difficult to pick out fakes.
Golden State, however, ignored orders from federal officials not to hire particular workers who were deported after raids, Unzueta said.
The company said it now screens its workers through a government program that matches employees with a national Social Security database. Less than 1 percent of California employers participate in that voluntary program.
The $4.7 million the family-owned company agreed to forfeit is an estimate of how much money it made using labor from workers without documentation. In addition, Kay agreed to pay a $200,000 fine and Mc Laughlin
Kay told the judge he hired at least 10 illegal immigrants.
"Did you know they had no right to work in the United States?" Moskowitz asked.
"Yes, sir," Kay quietly responded.
The 64-year-old Temecula man was raised by migrant workers from Oklahoma, said his lawyer, Richard Hirsch.
Hirsch said Kay built the company from scratch and hired people to build fences across the state, sometimes in punishing terrain.
"It's tough to get people to do that kind of work," he said.
The investigation stemmed from a post-Sept. 11 effort to weed out undocumented workers from high-security job sites, including military bases, airports and nuclear plants.