Two plead guilty to hiring illegal workers

June 04, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

The owners of two Ocean City restaurants pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in Baltimore to hiring illegal immigrants as below-minimum-wage employees and housing several of them at a nearby condominium, according to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.

Husband and wife Bo Hao Zhu, 33, and Siu Ping Cheng, 30, also pleaded guilty to evading taxes and owing the government nearly $7,000 after providing false information on employees' wages, the prosecutors said.

Zhu and Cheng ran Miyako Sushi and Seafood Buffet and Panda China Buffet, both in the 12000 block of Ocean Gateway, according to the plea agreement. In February 2005, a bank employee saw Cheng depositing large amounts of cash into Panda China Buffet's accounts, sparking a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, prosecutors said.

Over several months, ICE agents observed several workers whom they believed to be illegal immigrants traveling in Zhu's vehicle from Panda China Buffet to the condominium owned by the couple, according to federal prosecutors. In June 2007, agents established that four of the eight employees who worked at both the couple's restaurants were in the country illegally.

For two years starting in 2005, prosecutors said, Zhu and his company concealed numerous illegal immigrants from detection in residences and businesses it owned and rented. According to the plea agreement, six of 11 occupants at the couple's condominium in June 2006 were illegal immigrants working at Panda China Buffet.

"These are not inadvertent violations. These are known violations," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in an interview.

It is the first significant plea deal reached by local federal prosecutors for a restaurant owner harboring illegal immigrants since the owners of a popular Japanese establishment in Baltimore were raided by federal authorities more than two years ago.

In April 2006, the owners of the three Kawasaki restaurants in Baltimore agreed to hand over to federal authorities more than $1.1 million in cash, property and vehicles after pleading guilty to hiring illegal immigrants as low-wage employees. The owners funneled the profits from the labor into expensive real estate and luxury cars.

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

A day after a federal judge imposed a five-month prison sentence on the owner of Kawasaki, ICE agents targeted Jones Industrial Network, a staffing company downtown, and seized $630,000 from its bank account as agents hauled off workers from eight local businesses, including Under Armour Inc., in buses and vans.

Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the focus for the government agency remains targeting those who hire illegal immigrants.

"It's priority for us," Reilly said. "We operate under the principle that work is the magnet that draws people into this country illegally. If you discourage employers from hiring them, you turn off the magnet."

Rosenstein said businesses that hire illegal workers gain advantages over competitors.

Zhu could face a maximum sentence of five years in prison for tax evasion, and Cheng could face a maximum of six months in prison for unlawful employment of illegal immigrants. The couple has agreed to forfeit the Miyako property, according to the plea agreement.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for September before U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis.

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