A Duvall, Wash. organic herb company, its owner and two executives, including one who lives in Shoreline's gated Highlands neighborhood, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to felony and misdemeanor charges related to the hiring of illegal aliens at the company, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.
A guilty plea was entered by Herbco International, Inc. President Edward "Ted" Williamson Andrews, III, 58, of the Highlands, a former Nordstrom executive, on a misdemeanor charge for aiding and abetting a pattern and practice of employing illegal aliens, and was given one year federal probation.
The company was fined $1 million, and under the terms of the plea agreement, the fine is to be paid over the next five years. The agreement between the government and defendants was accepted by the judge.
The company pleaded guilty to two felony criminal counts: harboring, concealing, and shielding an alien; and encouraging and inducing an alien to reside in the U.S.
Also entering guilty pleas to the same charges and sentenced to a year probation were: vice president David William Lykins, Jr., 55, of Lake Stevens, Washington; and General Manager Debra Rae Howard, 56, of Woodinville, Washington.
The company admits that in April 2011, after being informed that the vast majority of its current employees, a total of 86, were not legally authorized to work in the U.S., the company fired and then secretly rehired as many as 25 of the illegal alien employees, assigned them to a secret night shift and paid them in cash.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez imposed a $1 million criminal fine on the company saying, “This is a sad case. But the laws of the United States are the laws of the United States. Congress passes the laws and we must all obey.”
An Herbco employee tipped off authorities about the scheme and took pictures of the cash envelopes of worth $40,000 used to pay the workers, according to the Associated Press.
“These company executives were looking to help themselves. They knew they were breaking the law with their secret night shift, off the book workers and the envelopes stuffed with cash,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Employers need to know there is a heavy price to pay - in this case a million dollars - for knowingly breaking the law by hiring ineligible workers.”
One of the company attorneys, Geoff Revelle, said the company couldn't get the work done hired them back.
"They made a mistake they did something they shouldn't have done a year ago and now it's resolved and done," Revelle said.
Under federal law, employers are required to ask a worker for identification that shows they're legally in the United States, according to a SeattlePI.com story. The worker can be hired if the documents look real upon a visual check.
“In the midst of an I-9 administrative audit, HerbCo hired and concealed unauthorized workers,” said Brad Bench, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Seattle acting special agent in charge. “It was a brazen move that compelled us to initiate a criminal investigation. HSI is working to reduce the demand for illegal workers by targeting those who knowingly hire them. Businesses that engage in this unlawful practice should take note of the significant penalties and take proactive steps to comply with the law.”
According to records filed in the case, in February 2011, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Seattle worksite audit group began auditing HERBCO’s compliance with the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law requires that an employer review documents from each worker to verify they are legally present in the United States and authorized to be employed. The verification forms are called I-9s. The audit of the HERBCO I-9s revealed that more than 200 workers who had been employed by HERBCO had presented false documentation on their status in the U.S. In April 2011, the company was informed of the results of the audit. Company executives were told the employees would have to provide valid documentation, or be dismissed. By April 21, 2011, the company claimed it had dismissed the 86 employees who were illegally employed by HERBCO at the time of the audit.
However, even as company executives were claiming to ICE that the illegal employees had been dismissed, they were making arrangements to secretly rehire the most productive workers for a secret night shift. The “A-Team,” as they called it, worked at night sorting, packaging and delivering shipments of herbs. The workers, who did not have legal status in the U.S., were paid in cash in envelopes left at the office with their names on them. The illegal workers remained at HERBCO until early June 2011. Company executives made about $40,000 in cash withdrawals from company accounts to compensate the illegal workers.
The case was investigated by ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The case was prosecuted by Special Assistant United States Attorney Donald Reno. Mr. Reno is an attorney with ICE, specially designated to prosecute immigration cases in federal court.
Sources: Associated Press, U.S. Attorney's Office for Western Washington, Geoff Revelle of Stoel Rives and SeattlePI.com.