- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The company that operates a Twin Peaks bar and restaurant in east Wichita on Thursday admitted knowingly employing at least 30 immigrants who were living in the United States unlawfully, a case that highlights a growing focus by federal prosecutors in Kansas on targeting businesses for immigration-related offenses.

Le Grande Tetons LLC pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Wichita to one count of engaging in a pattern and practice of hiring workers it knew were not authorized to be employed in this country. At the same hearing, the company was sentenced to pay a $50,000 fine as part of a plea deal with the government.

Defense attorney Scott A. Eads did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The Wichita-based company agreed to pay the fine within 180 days of its guilty plea. The government agreed not to file additional charges against Le Grande Tetons or a company owned by the same individuals that operates a Twin Peaks restaurant in west Wichita. The restaurants’ owners, officers, directors or current and former employees also won’t face charges. The exceptions are two former managers who remain under investigation.

Le Grande Tetons allowed some of its employees who were in the U.S. illegally to be used by the other company, Paradise West LLC, to work at the west-side restaurant, according to court documents.

“The word is getting out: Employers who knowingly hire foreign workers who are not authorized to work in the United States face criminal prosecution,” U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said in a news release. “I blame employers for this practice, not the employees. It isn’t very hard to figure out whether someone from another country has permission to work in the United States.”

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspection in September 2013 identified more than 20 immigrants working illegally for Twin Peaks in Wichita, and a manager promised at the time to stop hiring such workers, according to court records.

The government says restaurant management began using the workers again in 2014, even rehiring six of the former employees. Most came from Mexico.

The scheme unraveled when a Twin Peaks worker who was upset that he was losing hours to the employees who were working illegally sent an email to a Homeland Security agent. That employee also provided the name of a manager who had knowledge of the hiring practices, according to an affidavit used to obtain the warrant that was used to search the restaurants in July.

That manager told authorities that he resigned when several employees, who had been fired in 2013 because they had no work authorization, were asked by Twin Peaks managers to return to work even though those employees were still in the U.S. unlawfully. He also provided authorities with information allowing them to match the workers’ new identities with names used at the time of the 2013 inspection.

Le Grande Tetons has sold or is in the process of selling its restaurant, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

The case comes a week after the owner of the Route 56 Express gas station and convenience store in McPherson pleaded guilty to a similar charge for routinely employing workers living in the U.S. illegally.

Similar prosecutions in recent years have ensnared other Kansas businesses. One of the biggest involving an employer using workers in the U.S. illegally led to the forfeiture of the Clarion hotels in Overland Park, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, after their owner was sentenced in March to 27 months in prison.

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