A major Lexington County farm operation has agreed to plead guilty in federal court to the misdemeanor charge of hiring between 300 and 350 illegal immigrants as workers, according to filings Thursday in U.S. District Court in Columbia.
The farm operation, identified in court papers as HW Group, LLC, has also agreed to pay a $1 million fine, according to legal filings.
HW Group is the land holding entity of Walter P. Rawl & Sons, for decades a prominent Lexington County produce operation that sells and delivers a range of fresh foods around South Carolina and up and down the East Coast. Its products can be found at Publix, Piggly Wiggly, Wal-Mart and numerous other well-known chain stores. It also has a reputation as being a major corporate citizen that gives to numerous local causes.
No hearing date before a judge has been set.
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Bill Nettles, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said late Thursday he will make no comment until after the hearing.
The plea agreement also puts HW Group and “its related entities” on probation for four years.
Debbie Barbier, the Columbia lawyer identified in court papers as HW Group’s lawyer, on Thursday said a federal investigation into employees at HW Group has been going on since May 2013 and that the company has been cooperating with authorities from the beginning.
“They are doing the right things, and they have agreed to pay a hefty fine, and they’ve been working with the government for three years to make sure they are in compliance with all the federal and state laws and regulations,” Barbier said.
Barbier said the 300-350 workers cited in the federal papers were identified as working for HW Group over the past six years.
HW Group has agreed to abide by numerous strict requirements and hiring procedures from now on, including enrolling in the federal worker verification program called E-verify, even though agricultural operations are exempt from E-verify, Barbier said.
As part of the agreement, all Rawl corporate entities, not just HW Group, will be subject to federal monitoring and compliance reviews, Barbier said.
State Agriculture Secretary Hugh Weathers indicated Thursday that such a law enforcement action and fine against a South Carolina farm is rare.
In his 11 years as agriculture secretary, Weathers said, he could not remember any similar action of such magniitude.
“In my personal experience, I do not,” Weathers said.
Calling the Rawls “a good, solid farm family,” Weathers said, “This case is just a monumental example of why we need comprehensive immigration reform, including a solid guest-worker program.”
According to the Walter P. Rawl website, the 91-year-old farm operation is a major producer of vegetables, including greens, corn, onions and squash. Its owners include nine Rawl family members, and it has several hundred employees. Its motto is “Our business is growing.”
Barbier said the federal investigation began when the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement conducted what is known as an I-9 audit to verify the immigration status of some of HW Group’s workers.
“Through that audit, ICE became aware of some irregularities with the work documentation of some of the workers who farmed the land of HW Group,” Barbier said.
“As a result, HW Group began to take immediate steps, and is continuing to take steps, to require that all its workers have valid documentation and to ensure that it, and all its related entities, have workers with valid documentation,” Barbier said.
“Their No. 1 goal is to ensure that they have a fully legal workforce,” Barbier said, adding that the farm operation is now using a federal government program to get workers with approved visas.
Barbier also stressed that Rawl family members and their farming operation help many people in the Lexington area and throughout the state.
“They’ve been around a long time, and they’ve done a lot of very good things in this community,” Barbier said. Harvest Hope food bank, many local churches and other charitable organizations have received Rawl help over the years, she said.
The existence of the use of widespread illegal immigrants at the farm was revealed during a court hearing in November.
During the hearing, two Lexington County residents, Lazaro Mejia, 61, and his daughter, Sary Mejia, 35, were sentenced to probation on the misdemeanor charge of being part of a conspiracy to employ illegal Mexican workers at the farm.
Federal authorities agreed to go easy on the Mejias and not seek prison sentences since they tipped off law enforcement to the large numbers of illegal workers allegedly at the farm.
Courtroom statements in November depicted this scenario:
For years, Sary Mejia’s brother — whose name was not mentioned — was a kind of farm labor contractor for the farm, serving as a go-between who received a lump sum check, usually weekly, for about $20,000 to pay illegal immigrant workers.
Several years ago, the brother died and Sary Mejia took over.
As a farm labor contractor, Sary Mejia received a lump sum weekly in a check from the company, cashed it at a Lexington-area bank and distributed the proceeds to workers.
A bank employee contacted federal law enforcement officials about the large checks Mejia received. Once interviewed by federal agents, Sary Mejia talked freely about her actions.
Until the Mejias disclosed the existence of the Lexington County illegal farm workers, law enforcement was ignorant of the operation, the Mejias’ lawyers told Judge Joe Anderson during the November hearing
“She (Sary Mejia) painted a picture of what was going on at the farm that the government did not know about,” her lawyer, Justin Kata, told Anderson.
In November, Anderson appeared conflicted about the case but said he would accept the government’s recommendation for a probationary sentence because of the Mejias’ cooperation with authorities and their personal circumstances.
Describing the Mejias as “little fish,” Anderson asked prosecutor J.D. Rowell, “I guess it’s none of my business, but what about Rawl?”
Rowell, who was substituting for Jim May, the assistant U.S. attorney with first-hand knowledge of the case, told Anderson, “Your honor, I’m not qualified to answer that.”
Randy Halfacre, who recently retired as president of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce, of which the farm is a member, said he was surprised by the federal action.
“They’re great corporate citizens who, unfortunately, made a mistake and owned up to it,” Halfacre said.