By Manuel Valdes Associated Press
SEATTLE — A Washington state organic herb farm must pay $1 million for firing, then rehiring illegal immigrants following a federal audit.
A federal judge on Tuesday leveled the fine recommended by prosecutors against Duvall-based HerbCo International Inc. Three company officials, including Chief Executive Officer Ted Andrews of Seattle, also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges under a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had to retain witness accounts from the workers illegally in the country to make the case against the company. Those workers were given temporary work permits while the government created its case.
The rest of HerbCo’s workers also were vetted by ICE, but none were placed under deportation proceedings because they did not meet the agency’s “removal priorities,” said Brad Bench, ICE acting special agent in charge.
“This is the largest fine that I can recall that I’ve done in this office,” Bench said.
HerbCo operates on 150 acres in Duvall, and packaging is done on-site. The company has affiliates in five states. Annual sales top $25 million. The $1 million fine ordered by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle will be paid in installments over five years. The other executives who pleaded guilty were Vice President David Lykins Jr. of Lake Stevens and General Manager Debra Howard of Woodinville.
Court documents said ICE audited HerbCo’s payroll in February 2011 after a 2009 anonymous tip saying the farm had workers who were illegally in the country. An ICE agent then notified HerbCo that 214 employee files lacked valid documentation, including files for 86 people who were employed there at the time.
Following standard procedures, HerbCo officials laid off the 86 workers. Expecting a labor shortage, the company hired the firm Labor Ready to fill the vacancies with legal workers. But within days, company officials began to see production disrupted.
Court documents say Howard then came up with the plan of rehiring the “most productive” of the laid-off workers, paying them cash and having them work at night — out of sight of the workers hired through the labor firm.
Howard withdrew about $40,000 from a company bank account to pay the workers in cash put in envelopes. A HerbCo employee tipped authorities about the scheme, including taking pictures of the cash envelopes.
Following the Obama administration’s guidelines, ICE has targeted employers who hire illegal immigrants, serving audits to thousands of companies across the country in the past few years.
During an audit, ICE agents go through a company’s I-9 employment eligibility verification forms and check Social Security numbers to make sure they’re real, matching them against copies of other forms of identification.
“The message that we want to get across here is that (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is conducting these I-9 audits as a way to bring employers in compliance with the law as it in the books,” Bench said.
Under federal law, an employer is required to ask a worker for identification that shows they’re legally in the United States. An employer can hire the worker if the documents look real upon a visual check.
ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said removal priorities for ICE are illegal immigrants with criminal records, recent border crossers and those who re-enter the country after being deported.