A family-owned vegetable farm in Foley, Minn., is at the center of an alleged conspiracy to bring in workers with false papers from the Dominican Republic, force them to pay illegal fees and threaten them to keep them quiet.
The workers lived in a dormitory on the nearly 500-acre farm, cultivating sweet corn, berries and a wide range of vegetables about 20 miles northeast of St. Cloud. But they told federal authorities that the penalty for complaining about their pay was getting sent back to their homes near Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast.
The first sign of trouble came in May, when federal agents in a helicopter and a swarm of vehicles raided the Svihel Vegetable Farm.
The government’s investigation is outlined in recently unsealed search warrants, a criminal complaint filed in May, and an indictment filed in June charging Wilian Socrate Cabrera of Cleveland, Ohio, with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Cabrera’s attorney did not respond Monday to a request for comment.
Cabrera has been in the Sherburne County jail since May 26, according to his brother, Jose Cabrera. He said he believes his brother is innocent of the charges.
“He was helping families that have need for a better life, I would say. So they would come here and earn some money and go back home,” Jose Cabrera said.
The government paints a darker picture.
Federal agents say that Wilian Cabrera recruited workers from around his hometown of Navarrete in the Dominican Republic to work at the farm run by John and Julie Svihel. They estimate that Cabrera collected $90,000 in illegal recruitment kickbacks from workers at the Svihel Farm.
Threatened by ‘enforcers’
Sarah R. Cope, a special agent with the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, said in a sworn statement in May that the workers felt threatened — “physically and financially” — by John Svihel and Wilian Cabrera.
Many of the laborers’ homes were used to secure loans from Cabrera to pay for illegal fees, and they fear that if they don’t pay him back, “he will take their homes,” Cope said. The workers also reported that Cabrera had friends or “enforcers” on the job, one of whom threatened to “break their neck” if they talked to federal investigators.
Cabrera had worked for a company called Horizon Lawn Management in Ohio since 2005 under a temporary work visa for seasonal, nonagricultural workers. Horizon is owned and operated by Sandra Bart and her son Jason Bart.
Federal regulations covering temporary agricultural work visas prohibit employers or their agents from collecting money from the laborers — called “pay to play” fees. They also must provide housing for the workers and transportation to and from the job.
The government alleges that the Barts, the Svihels and Cabrera conspired to violate the visa process by forcing the laborers to pay cash kickbacks at the end of the season to offset their wages and repay their transportation costs. They also are accused of forcing some of the workers to file taxes through a single H&R Block office in Brook Park, Ohio.
Neither the Svihels nor the Barts have been charged in the investigation. They did not respond Monday to requests for comment. However, John Svihel told the St. Cloud Times last summer that he didn’t know why the family’s business had been searched by federal authorities.
Cope said in court papers that the case got underway with a Labor Department investigation of the Svihel Vegetable Farm. The investigation turned into a criminal case in August 2014 on allegations that John Svihel required workers to pay illegal fees and kickbacks.
Svihel signed visa application documents acknowledging that he or his farm was required to pay for the workers’ travel between the Dominican Republic and the farm, and promising to pay them prevailing hourly wages. But Cope said the workers told federal agents that they had to pay Svihel for their travel expenses. Some said they had to pay Cabrera to hold their jobs for the next season, or move up their position in line to work for Svihel.
The Department of State estimates that Svihel got $170,100 in improper travel payments, and $77,221 in kickbacks by reducing worker pay from the prevailing wage to $10 an hour. It also alleges that Sandra Bart got $65,583 in kickbacks in 2013 alone for holding agricultural jobs in the 2014 season.
“One worker said that four months of U.S. income allowed him to put a roof on his house and feed his family,” Cope said. “All the individuals interviewed stated that although the work was hard and the treatment was bad, the amount of money was worth it all.”
A worker identified in court filings as “John Doe 1” told authorities that Svihel had instructed him to get the others to sign a statement saying that the Department of Labor had pressured them to cooperate with the investigation. He said after he was unable to get anyone to sign, he was branded a “traitor” and was sent home on the first flight after the 2014 farming season.
Before he left, John Doe 1 showed investigators a copy of a tax return, prepared in Ohio, showing that he earned $12,454 — a return he wasn’t legally required to file. Cope said that John Svihel, Sandra Bart and Cabrera forced workers in their second or third year of the visa program to travel by plane from Minnesota to Ohio at their own expense to have tax returns prepared in their names. They lost two days of wages and paid H&R Block about $115 to prepare the returns, and some were forced to sign their wives’ names on the tax returns.