Kawasaki owners plead guilty

Restaurateurs hired illegal workers, who face deportation

April 15, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

The owners of Kawasaki restaurants pleaded guilty in federal court in Baltimore yesterday, admitting they hired illegal immigrants as low-wage employees at their well-known Japanese eateries and funneled the profits from their labor into expensive real estate and luxury cars.

The owners of the three Kawasaki restaurants in Mount Vernon and Fells Point, and at Johns Hopkins Hospital agreed to hand over to federal authorities more than $1.1 million in cash, property and vehicles, authorities said. But none of that money will reimburse the former workers, who immigration authorities said lived in harrowing conditions; they likened their employment to slave labor.

And while the terms of the plea deals could allow the defendants to avoid prison, two of the 15 workers - who come from countries as diverse as Nepal and El Salvador - have been locked up since raids on the restaurants last month because they were already facing deportation. The other 13 must wear ankle bracelets. All face deportation.

Co-owners Tzu Ming Yang, 48, and Jack Chang, 41, entered guilty pleas on two immigration-related felony counts in the March indictment. Yang's wife, Jui Fan Lee, 49, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. The pleas came just one month after the raids, an extraordinarily rapid disposition, according to lawyers in the case.

Chang and Tzu Ming Yang, both of Clarksville, pleaded guilty to harboring illegal immigrants and money laundering, felonies that together carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. The misdemeanor conviction for Jui Fan Lee Yang allows a prison sentence up to six months.

The owners and their lawyers declined to comment yesterday. They have reopened their Fells Point restaurant, but their eateries on Charles Street in Mount Vernon and at Hopkins remained closed.

No one answered the door late yesterday afternoon at a rowhouse owned by Chang and Yang on South Chapel Street in Fells Point. Several blocks away, at the Kawasaki on South Ann Street overlooking the water, where two tables were occupied by patrons, a man behind the counter declined to comment.

Immigration officials are holding up the successful prosecution as an example of a new strategy that targets employers who hire undocumented workers and seizes the assets associated with their crimes.

"Targeting the profits of illegal alien employment schemes is a tactic ICE is adopting nationwide" Julie L. Myers, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said in a statement yesterday.

Mark Bastan, the acting special agent in charge of ICE's Baltimore office, said the plea agreements ensured cooperation from the defendants, leading authorities up the chain to an employment agency in New York that sent many of the illegal immigrants to Kawasaki.

On March 14, dozens of federal agents descended on all three Kawasaki restaurants, as well as the owners' high-priced homes in Howard County.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ordered that Chang and the Yangs be released until their sentencing, which is expected to be held in late June or early July.

As part of their plea, they have agreed to forfeit more than $386,000 from bank accounts, two properties in Timonium and Baltimore, and five cars, including two Lexuses and one Mercedes.

"Generally the money that's forfeited goes to the government," said Marcia Murphy, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, adding that some of the money might go to a fund for crime victims.

The Yangs opened the Kawasaki Restaurant in the 400 block of N. Charles St. in 1984. With Chang, they opened a sister restaurant in Fells Point. The Yangs also operated an outpost of their sushi restaurant at Hopkins.

Their immigration problems surfaced in 1997, according to court papers.

In June 1997, an immigration enforcement agent issued a warning to Tzu Ming Yang, telling him he had employed two illegal workers.

The investigation appears to have been reopened in September 2002, when federal agents received an anonymous letter accusing both Kawasaki restaurants of employing illegal immigrants, court papers show.

Agents investigated, discovering that the owners bought real estate to house their illegal workers, according to court papers.

"In this case, the operators of Baltimore's best-known sushi restaurants exploited cheap, illegal labor to maximize profits so they could purchase luxury vehicles and other assets for themselves," Myers said.

Federal authorities said some workers were housed above the Charles Street restaurant. One agent described the conditions as poor. "There were very small rooms, mattresses on the floor and little or no plumbing," said Bastan, the ICE agent.

But the owners led an upscale life, court papers show. According to their plea agreement, they admitted using multiple bank accounts as part of a money laundering operation that involved hiding funds earned by the workers at the restaurant.

"Money laundering is not a victimless crime," Rick A. Raven, the special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation section at the Baltimore office of the Internal Revenue Service, said in a statement yesterday. "Not only are innocent people `duped' by various schemes, but the underground, untaxed economy harms the entire nation's economic strength."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

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