Restaurant's troubles go back for several years

Kawasaki closed twice in '05 for health code violations

March 04, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN, JULIE BYKOWICZ AND HANAH CHO | MATTHEW DOLAN, JULIE BYKOWICZ AND HANAH CHO,SUN REPORTERS

A federal investigation that shuttered three of Baltimore best-known sushi restaurants this week exposes what authorities say is a local and national problem of employing illegal immigrants that should receive more attention from law enforcement.

National experts as well as local restaurateurs say too many establishments rely on backroom work by undocumented workers, and they expressed little surprise at the allegations lodged Thursday against the owners of Kawasaki restaurants in the city.

"When a restaurant owner cannot find dependable people to do the jobs that have to be done in an industry like ours, they're between a rock and a hard place," said Lenny Kaplan, a retired Baltimore restaurateur. He added that owners may "do things that maybe aren't as ethical - and that's unfortunate that we're forced to do that."

Immigration agents arrested the three owners of Kawasaki restaurants in raids at their locations in Mount Vernon, Fells Point and at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They detained 15 workers described in court papers as illegal immigrants who agents said were robbed of customer tips by their own employers.

Investigators said they acted against Kawasaki because of repeated complaints going back almost a decade. Workers were housed in substandard conditions, including above the North Charles Street restaurant, and were paid as little as $2 an hour, according to federal officials.

Authorities also charged in court papers that money owed to the immigrant workers was instead dumped into bank accounts used to pay for expensive homes in Howard County and on a fleet of luxury cars.

"The agency as a whole is reprioritizing our workplace enforcement," said Mark Bastan, acting special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Baltimore. "We're going to be using more investigators; we're going to go after [employers'] assets. You're going to be seeing more of these cases across the country."

Kawasaki's owners - Tzu Ming Yang, 48; his wife, Jui Fan Lee Yang, 49; and Jack Chang, 41, all of Clarksville - are now battling federal charges of harboring and employing illegal workers and money laundering.

But a review of city inspection reports shows they had long wrestled with another problem - health code violations.

City Health Department inspectors closed the restaurant twice last year - even taking steps to revoke its food permit - because of "repeat violations" that included pest infestations, possible food spoilage, unsanitary conditions and clutter.

At one administrative hearing after city officials temporarily closed the Charles Street location last year, co-owner Tzu Ming Yang blamed his problems on a busy travel schedule "doing volunteer work for the mayor concerning [Baltimore's] sister city project with China," according to Health Department documents.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory confirmed that Yang chaired one of the city's sister cities panels, but said the top post was not a mayoral appointment.

Each of the three restaurants remained closed by the owners yesterday. The detained workers are in federal custody, according to Bastan. Yang, his wife and a third owner have been released until their next court appearance, scheduled for Wednesday. Gregg Bernstein, a lawyer representing the Yangs, declined to comment about their case yesterday.

Loyal customers continued to express shock at the charges.

"For me, it's the Chesapeake roll," Karen Nichols, 30, of Edgewater, saying what drove her to Fells Point yesterday at lunchtime only to find the door at Kawasaki locked. "It's devastating. The quality of the food, the friendliness of the staff. It's going to be terrible if they stay closed."

Sulih Santoso, 37, of Baltimore, said his chief concerns are the futures of his wife, an assistant manager at Kawasaki's in Fells Point and a legal resident, and his undocumented cousin, who worked at the Charles Street restaurant and now sits in a Howard County jail cell.

"I don't know what we're going to do. We haven't heard whether they are going to reopen," Santoso, a native of Indonesia, said outside the Fells Point restaurant yesterday.

Federal law enforcement officials say that raids like those at Kawasaki could happen much more often. According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, 11 percent of workers in the nation's $511 billion restaurant and food services industry are unauthorized immigrants.

Many of these illegal workers fill low-paying and labor-intensive jobs as bus boys, dishwashers and food preparation workers because they don't require government licenses or much education, said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Trade group representatives admit that the hiring of illegal immigrants is a continuing problem.

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