Restaurant owners face sentencing

Trio seek to avoid prison in immigration case

March 28, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

The news last year out of some of Baltimore's best-known Japanese restaurants shocked the city's sushi-loving diners: illegal immigrants working for substandard wages and without tips so the owners of Kawasaki restaurants could buy expensive cars and homes in the suburbs.

Now, the defendants get their say.

In court papers filed for today's sentencing in federal court, the owners - Tzu Ming Yang, his wife, Jui Fan Lee Yang, and their business partner, Jack Chang - appear contrite, community-minded and fully ready to make more than $1 million in restitution for their crimes.

But according to their lawyers, they shouldn't have to serve a day in jail.

Their guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in Baltimore nearly a year ago for harboring illegal immigrants have been offered up by federal authorities in Washington as evidence of the new approach of targeting employers who knowingly hire workers who enter the country improperly. In the Kawasaki case, immigration officials charged the owners and moved to deport 15 employees, saying they entered the country illegally.

"I think we really put this into high gear, shifting the focus from fines, which were ineffective," Julie L. Myers, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in an interview last year.

Arrests have increased from 25 in the 2002 fiscal year to 716 during the 2006 fiscal year, according to ICE statistics.

"The criminal prosecutions are usually lengthy and take a long time to develop," Myers said.

Now, as these criminal cases move through the courts, it will up to federal judges such as U.S. District Court's Catherine C. Blake in Baltimore to decide the appropriate punishment for crimes traditionally punished with fines.

The owners of the three Kawasaki restaurants in Mount Vernon, Fells Point and at Johns Hopkins Hospital have agreed to hand over to federal authorities more than $1.1 million in cash, property and vehicles. But on the felony charges, federal sentencing guidelines call for time behind bars.

"This is a serious case. It is one in which the defendants exploited numerous illegal immigrants," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven H. Levin and Gregory Welsh wrote in their sentencing memo filed in court.

"In addition to cheating the immigrants of fair wages and decent living conditions, the defendants cheated the United States by failing to pay appropriate withholdings, and, by doing so, put themselves in a better position, vis-a-vis, their competition in the marketplace," they wrote.

Yesterday, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said he expected his prosecutors to ask Blake to sentence the defendants according to the recommended guidelines.

Historically, federal immigration agents would have used administrative tools to handle such cases.

They likely would have conducted an inspection at Kawasaki to determine whether the employer was in compliance with the law. Following the inspection, the issuance of a fine based on paperwork violations would have been the customary end result.

The owners, officials admit, would have escaped even a misdemeanor charge. The maximum fine would have been approximately $20,000. And in many cases, such a fine would be negotiated down even further, often down to half of the original penalty.

In the Kawasaki case, co-owners Tzu Ming Yang, 48, and Chang, 42, pleaded guilty on two immigration-related felony counts in April. Yang's 50-year-old wife pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

The pleas came one month after the March 2006 raids.

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 theme that emerges in court papers focuses on what some business owners say is a common problem: the ability to find enough low-wage, low-skill workers.

"Mr. Yang's conduct was never motivated by a desire to exploit his employees for personal gain," his attorneys Gregg L. Bernstein and Sean P. Vitrano wrote in their sentencing memorandum. "Rather, it was driven by a combination of business necessity and a desire to help his employees."

Finally, they conclude by asking the judge for a variance from recommended guidelines so that Yang would not have to spend any time in prison.

Joshua R. Treem, Mrs. Yang's attorney, wrote that his client was a bit player in the crime, saying "she had virtually no role in the daily operation of the restaurants."

Anything other than a sentence of probation, Treem wrote to the judge, "will have a significant and potentially drastic negative effect on the children." One of the Yangs' adult children is disabled, according to lawyers in the case.

In 1992, Chang started working with Tzu Ming Yang at the Kawasaki restaurant on Charles Street as a sushi chef. The men together opened Kawasaki Cafe in Fells Point in 1999.

Chang, who does not have a prior criminal history, pleaded guilty but his lawyer insisted that Chang never sought to profit from his employees' maltreatment.

His actions were motivated by the need for "staffing the Cafe and attempting to assist the employees by provided housing," Chang's lawyer Gerard P. Martin wrote in court papers.

Imprisoning Chang is unnecessary, according to his attorney.

According to Martin, federal guidelines call for a prison sentence of four to 10 months for Chang. Martin requested that Blake sentence Chang to probation with some period of home confinement.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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