Judge says operator of ND vegetable plant must serve prison time for hiring illegal workers

IndustriesAssociated Press

The owner of a North Dakota vegetable processing plant who was convicted of recruiting and hiring illegal workers must serve time in custody despite a joint sentencing recommendation calling for no prison time, a judge said Monday.

Monte Benz pleaded guilty in April to one count of harboring illegal workers who were employed at his KIDCO Farms plant near Dawson. Authorities said there were about two-dozen illegal workers who were recruited from Arizona in 2013.

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The negotiated agreement between Benz and the government called for him to serve six months of home confinement, a deal that U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson criticized as a "huge home-field advantage" that should not be allowed in the federal system. Erickson cited a recent similar case in which he sentenced a Texas man to six months in prison.

"The question is, what makes this case different, other than the guy happens to be from North Dakota?" Erickson asked. "It's hard for me to look at the joint recommendation and see no prison time."

Erickson sentenced Benz to three months in prison and three months of electronic home monitoring.

Investigators said that Benz and a second defendant, Richard Shearer, found housing in Dawson and Steele for the workers, who were transported to and from the plant in a van and occasionally driven to nearby Bismarck to buy groceries and incidentals. When a local bank started asking about the workers' identities, the defendants set up a separate entity as a way to pay them, prosecutors said.

Erickson called it a "serious human trafficking crime" that resulted in mostly homeless people being transported across state lines and forced to live in "vile and inhumane" conditions.

Benz's attorney, Shannon Gregor, argued that her client had limited "level of involvement and knowledge" in the scheme. She said Benz's company is important to the area economy and he has support from a "wide variety of people," including about 30 of whom showed up at Monday's hearing.

"I'm not saying that he shouldn't have looked further into it," Gregor said. "That is why he pleaded guilty."

Benz has agreed to pay back $100,000 in illegal proceeds. A couple of the illegal workers have filed claims for a total of about $25,000, but the two sides have not come to an agreement about any restitution.

Shearer was sentenced to 30 days in prison and ordered to forfeit $20,000. The joint sentencing recommendation in that case called for three years of probation, with a condition of three months' detention served in Shearer's home in Moses Lake, Washington.