- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The owner of a vegetable plant in central North Dakota pleaded guilty Thursday to hiring and housing workers who were living in the country illegally.

Monte Benz, 52, is charged in federal court with harboring the illegal workers. Authorities say he arranged for housing and transportation for the employees to work at his KIDCO Farms plant in Dawson.

The plea agreement calls for Benz to pay back $100,000 in illegal proceeds. He faces a maximum charge of 10 years in prison, but the deal calls for the government to recommend a lower sentence at Benz’s June 29 hearing.

Mark Western, Benz’s attorney, declined to comment outside the courtroom.

Benz is the second person affiliated with the company to plead guilty. Richard Shearer, who was hired as a consultant to improve efficiency and supply labor for the plant, pleaded guilty last month to a harboring charge.

Benz and Shearer are accused of recruiting the workers from Arizona in 2013 and getting them “a bus ticket to North Dakota,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Healy said during Thursday’s hearing. She said the defendants found housing in Dawson and Steele for the workers, who were transported to and from the plant in a van and driven to nearby Bismarck on occasion to buy groceries and incidentals.

Healy said that when a local bank started asking about the identities of the workers, the defendants set up a separate entity, Flat Land LLC, as a way to pay them. She said about $820,000 from that account was used to pay the workers, who earned $9 or $10 an hour.

Western said Benz agrees that he acted in “reckless disregard” by hiring the workers, but he does not admit to “each and every allegation” by the government. The number of illegal workers harbored by Benz was “more than 6 but less than 24,” Western said.

Healy said the government is deciding whether to ask Benz to pay restitution for some possible back wages owed the workers, but that’s “an open question at this point,” she said.

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