Poultry giant to pay fine

Columbia Farms changing hiring practices after settling immigration violations

Columbia Farms will pay a $1.5 million fine and will be required to change its hiring practices under an agreement that will allow it to avoid a criminal conviction on federal immigration charges.

The deal will also allow two indicted managers at the poultry company's Greenville plant to avoid criminal prosecution, provided they enter a supervised program for a year.

The agreement, finalized just hours before the start of the scheduled criminal trial in federal court in Greenville on Tuesday, will give N.C.-based parent company House of Raeford Farms an opportunity to keep its record clean and hold on to valuable government contracts.

Columbia Farms was charged with knowingly hiring illegal immigrants following a massive raid at its Greenville plant last year. The federal probe was spurred by an Observer investigation of workplace safety in the poultry industry.

The government said it would dismiss the charges against the company provided it improves its hiring practices over the next two years and submits to federal monitoring at its eight plants in the Carolinas and Louisiana. The company has a plant in West Columbia.

"Our goal is not to punish corporations and get them to cut jobs," Walt Wilkins, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, told the Observer. "Our goal is to get them to be a responsible corporate citizen. And our agreement allows us to accomplish all of that."

Wilkins said the $1.5 million fine exceeds any penalty the company likely would have been forced to pay if it had been convicted at trial. In that case, he said, the maximum fine probably would have been about $900,000.

Wilkins said House of Raeford has already begun a "comprehensive overhaul" of its hiring practices.

Over the past year, he said, the company has hired a corporate compliance officer who has audited company hiring procedures to ensure they conform to federal laws. The new official has expertise in immigration issues and previously worked for the U.S. government, Wilkins said.

Among the conditions the company must meet over the next two years to avoid future prosecution:

- Participate in federal programs - including E-Verify - that allow employers to check workers' documents and Social Security numbers against federal databases.

- Provide regular training to employees to ensure hiring practices comply with federal law.

- Use an outside auditor to review the company's employment eligibility forms.

As part of the agreement, two indicted managers at the company's Greenville plant - complex manager Barry Cronic and human resources director Elaine Crump - will have charges against them dismissed if they successfully complete a probationary program over the next year.

"We are pleased with the results and Mr. Cronic is glad to be able to put this behind him and move on with his life," Bart Daniel, an attorney for Cronic, wrote in an e-mail to the Observer.

In the Observer's February 2008 series, the newspaper reported that some House of Raeford managers knowingly employed illegal immigrants. Current and former supervisors said the plants preferred undocumented workers because they were less likely to question working conditions for fear of being fired or deported.

The deal comes about a year after the October 2008 raid at the Greenville plant resulted in the arrests of more than 300 undocumented workers. It was the largest immigration raid ever to take place in the Carolinas.

Immigration authorities raided the plant after determining that 777 of 825 workers there had apparently submitted false documents to get their jobs.

Authorities alleged that Cronic, Crump and Columbia Farms intentionally hired illegal workers from 2000 until October 2008, when the raid occurred.