Eight men recruited immigrants who were in the country illegally to work for low wages at six Asian restaurants the suspects owned or managed in central Pennsylvania, federal prosecutors said.
The suspected ringleader — 51-year-old Jing Mei "Jimmy" Jiang of Boalsburg — and the others have agreed to plead guilty, according to documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.
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The indictment alleges Jiang and the others conspired to bus in workers from employment agencies in New York City's Chinatown and paid them less than the $7.25 per hour minimum wage. The workers were immigrants in the country illegally from China, Thailand, Guatemala and Mexico, the indictment said.
"Unauthorized alien workers were hired routinely to staff restaurant kitchen operations, thereby cutting costs and maximizing profits," the Justice Department said in a statement.
The New York attorney representing the defendants didn't immediately return a call seeking comment Friday.
The restaurants are located in State College, about 120 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Eight Asian restaurants were raided in June 2014 as part of what's called an ongoing investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Pennsylvania attorney general.
Six of the restaurants were identified as hiring at least 18 of the workers since 2013, though authorities said the conspiracy has been going on since 2005. They have not said how many workers might have been illegally employed during that decade.
Jiang is the lead defendant because prosecutors contend he handled finances for the restaurants and worked with an unidentified New York accounting firm to provide payroll services for the restaurants.
The accounting firm issued fraudulent monthly payroll checks and quarterly wage reports for each employee, and the actual number of employees at each restaurant was underreported, the indictment said. The workers were not only underpaid, but state and federal taxes were not withheld from their wages, the indictment said.
According to the 36-page plea agreement, Jiang agreed to plead guilty to a charge of bringing in and harboring aliens, which carries up to 10 years in prison, and wire fraud, which carries up to 20 years in prison, for the fraudulent online filing of payroll and federal income tax information relating to the workers.
The other seven defendants face up to five years in prison on a lesser charge of bringing in and harboring aliens, and all must plead guilty, too, otherwise the agreement with Jiang is voided, the document said.
The government is seeking the forfeiture of four residences in State College and nearly $65,000 seized by investigators.
According to the plea agreement, Jiang has agreed to take a polygraph and cooperate with the investigation. Although he can't face additional criminal charges, the case is being transferred to the Internal Revenue Service, which can pursue unpaid taxes, interest and penalties and will oversee Jiang's filing of delinquent tax returns.
Guilty plea hearings and other court appearances have yet to be scheduled for any of the defendants.