June, 2009 (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH BY Robert Patrick) - Chevys fined for hiring undocumented immigrants

ST. LOUIS - The lawyer had an attractive offer for restaurant owners nationwide: a seminar, free to owners, that would resolve any immigration problems that their employees had.

Unfortunately for one restaurant chain here, it was a scam, and its participation resulted in a loss of $150,000 and a federal criminal charge of knowingly and intentionally employing unauthorized immigrants.

T&J Restaurants LLC on Friday pleaded guilty to that misdemeanor charge and agreed to forfeit $75,000 to the Department of Homeland Security and pay a $75,000 fine. T&J owns nine Chevys Fresh Mex restaurants and one Chevys Express in the St. Louis area.

T&J's road to federal court began before January 2005, when it was approached by a California law firm, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bodenhausen said in court.

T&J lawyer Gil Sison told U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert that the firm peddled its services to chain restaurants, saying, "If you have some undocumented workers, we can make them legal."

The seminar was paid for by employees and conducted in Spanish, T&J majority owner John Whicker said in an interview outside the courtroom, so he said he never knew what employees were being told. But the company eventually found out that it was a scam, and had a lawyer try to get employees' money back.

That effort succeeded, but the company did not terminate the undocumented employees until February 2008, Bodenhausen said. The company should have known that the employees were illegal through their participation in the program, he said.

Sison told Mummert that T&J was simply following the advice of its lawyer at the time, who told them to retain the employees so that they could be paid back.

Sison and Whicker said that the company attempted to verify all employees' immigration status with dates of birth and Social Security numbers. The company is now participating with the E-Verify program, a Web-based system that the government says is the "...best means available for determining employment eligibility of new hires and the validity of their Social Security numbers."

T&J employed at least 25 undocumented workers. A specific number was not available.

Lawyers would not identify the California law firm. No lawsuits or attorney disciplinary records could be located that would shed light on the lawyer's name. Federal officials declined to comment on the progress of any investigation into the firm.

In court, Mummert said it was the first time that an employer had been in his court on immigration charges. Mummert said it was easy to go after illegal immigrants, but it took more time and effort to pursue companies that employ them. He said he appreciated the government's efforts to pursue "the other half of the crime."

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