Friday, March 30, 2007

The head of a California company hired by the U.S. government to help build a fence along the Southwest border to curb the flow of illegal aliens into the United States has been sentenced on charges of hiring illegals for the job.

Mel Kay Jr., 64, founder, chairman and president of the Golden State Fence Co., pleaded guilty in December in federal court in San Diego to felony charges of hiring the illegals and was sentenced Wednesday to six months home confinement, three months probation and 1,040 hours of community service.

Michael McLaughlin, 42, manager of the company’s Oceanside, Calif., office, who also pleaded guilty in December to charges of hiring illegals, was sentenced to six months home confinement.

U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz in San Diego also ordered Kay to pay a $200,000 fine as part of a plea agreement, while McLaughlin was fined $100,000.

“Prosecution is long overdue in this area,” Judge Moskowitz said at sentencing. “Honestly, the government’s efforts have been at the border, not with the employer. Obviously, the government has signaled a change with this case.”

Judge Moskowitz, in explaining his decision not to impose a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison, said a company “that pays top dollar and did not get a competitive advantage, should receive different treatment.”

He said the court could not ignore the background of “hardworking people who treated others fairly. Contrary to the vast majority of people who hire illegal immigrants, there was no abuse [here].”

The company, which built more than a mile of a 15-foot-high fence near the Otay Mesa border crossing in the San Diego area to protect against illegal immigration, agreed separately to pay $5 million on a misdemeanor count — one of the largest penalties ever imposed on an employer for immigration violations.

Golden State Executive Vice President Gary Hansen said the company was “grateful” the judge chose probationary sentences rather than incarceration.

“Mel and Mike are hardworking men who have worked all their lives to make a better life for themselves and the people around them,” Mr. Hansen said. “Their acts were not egregious, nor were they exploitive to the undocumented workers. We believe the court recognized the strength of their character when making its decision.”

Golden State was notified in writing in July 1999 that at least 15 of its employees at its Oceanside office were discovered to be illegal aliens following a visit by agents from the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. At that time, Golden State executives said they were terminating the illegal workers, but in September 2004, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents found that 49 Golden State employees at the Oceanside office were illegal aliens.

Three of those employees were identified as being among the illegal workers listed in the 1999 notice.

In November 2005, ICE agents seized evidence at the company’s offices in Oceanside and Riverside, Calif., showing that the two offices had engaged in a pattern of hiring illegal aliens. From September 2004 to September 2005, agents said, Golden State hired more than 10 illegal workers listed in the 1999 and 2004 notices.

The guilty pleas followed a multiyear investigation by ICE.

“This settlement and guilty plea clearly show that employers who knowingly and blatantly hire illegal workers will pay dearly for such transgressions,” Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said at the time.

Golden State currently employs more than 700 workers at eight locations throughout Southern California.

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