- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Lawyers for employees of a Georgia-based manufacturer yesterday urged the Supreme Court to allow a lawsuit that accuses the flooring company of suppressing workers’ wages by recruiting illegal aliens.

Even though the case involves the politically explosive matter of illegal labor, it arrived before the justices because of a dispute over the lawsuit’s use of the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) — a law traditionally used to prosecute organized crime.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the lawyer representing the employees, who are backed by the Bush administration, why their accusations against Mohawk Industries, which appear to fit under general criminal conspiracy law, had been brought under RICO.

“I’m trying to give you an opportunity to tell why this case constitutes RICO, and you’re telling me ‘interstate commerce’ and that it happened with more than one person,” the chief justice said. “Those are things that can be handled by criminal conspiracy law.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said allowing the case to go forward could effectively “RICO-ize vast amounts of commercial activities” that have “nothing to do with organized crime.”

Winning parties in RICO cases can be awarded triple damages — notably higher awards than winners in non-racketeering criminal cases. Congress expanded RICO in 1996 to include violations of immigration law.

The group of current and former Mohawk employees say the company violated RICO by systematically contracting outside recruiting firms to hire illegals. The lawsuit says Mohawk provided identification cards to illegal aliens, which helped them avoid detection by immigration authorities.

The case stalled after Mohawk filed a preliminary motion to have it dismissed, arguing that it was improperly filed under RICO on grounds the company’s activities did not constitute a racketeering “enterprise” as described by the language of the law.

Carter G. Phillips, the lawyer who represented the company yesterday, told the justices that providing ID cards to workers was part of the company’s regular personnel practices, not a racketeering enterprise.

Mohawk denies knowing that it had illegal aliens on its payroll.

The high court agreed to weigh in after two lower federal courts denied Mohawk’s motion.

Court observers noted the greater immigration underpinnings of the case likely will not come to the forefront until the justices decide whether to allow the case to go forward under RICO or order it to be refiled under another criminal law.

Yesterday’s debate “was only to discuss the motion to dismiss,” said Lynda S. Zengerle, a prominent immigration lawyer in the District, who predicted the case would not be dismissed.

“It was basically like Clinton’s ‘what is the definition of is,’ ” she said, referring to the former president’s grand jury testimony.

Justice David H. Souter was critical of Mohawk’s effort to dismiss the case yesterday, saying the deeper issue at hand centered on whether the company was “providing cover for the illegal status of the aliens” it hired.

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