In the nation’s first criminal prosecution of work-visa fraud, an Ohio woman has been sentenced to prison for her role in a conspiracy that required foreign laborers at a Minnesota farm to pay illegal fees and kickbacks.
Sandra L. Bart, 69, of suburban Cleveland, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Minneapolis to five years in prison. Jurors found Bart guilty in August of hiring employees from the Dominican Republic, then forcing them to pay kickbacks and cover their own travel expenses.
Bart and a co-defendant recruited mostly agricultural employers — including the Svihel Vegetable Farm in Foley, Minn. — to hire the workers.
Convicted and sentenced earlier were Svihel farm owner John J. Svihel, 53, (six months in prison) and Wilian S. Cabrera, 44, of the Dominican Republic (26 months in prison).
Officials say the case was the first work-visa fraud case that federal prosecutors charged criminally since a 2009 law change that required employers to certify under penalty of perjury that they would not collect fees from workers.
At the time of Bart’s conviction, her attorney said she intended no harm to the Dominican workers. Attorney Piper Kenney Wold said that Bart’s “primary goal was to bring impoverished people to the U.S. to work to improve their lives. She did that.”
In arguing for a two-year prison term, Wold wrote in a presentencing document that it was Cabrera who “picked the employees who would come over” from the Dominican Republic.
“Bart never went to the DR,” the argument continued. “She did not speak Spanish. ... It was all through Wilian.”
Prosecutors pushed in a counter-filing for an eight-year term, noting the time span of the conspiracy, Bart’s deep involvement and her attempts to thwart the criminal investigation, which was led by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
The family-owned Svihel farm also was indicted last year, but prosecutors dismissed charges in June as part of the owner’s plea agreement.
As part of the plea deal, Svihel deposited $772,583 into a trust fund for restitution and agreed that his farm would participate in an enhanced compliance program through the end of 2017.
According to court documents, Bart’s scheme grew from her Horizon Lawn Management company that she ran in Ohio, where she began hiring employees on temporary work visas, also called H-2A visas.
She and an employee, Cabrera, created an unregistered business through which Cabrera recruited workers from his hometown of Navarrete in the Dominican Republic. They recruited workers for Bart’s company and later for other businesses, including Svihel’s farm, a landscaping firm in Kentucky and farms in Florida, Wisconsin, Missouri and North Dakota.
Federal regulations covering H-2A visas prohibit employers from collecting recruitment fees or wage kickbacks. Employers must also pay housing and travel expenses to and from their workers’ home countries, but Cabrera collected travel costs from workers, according to court documents.
Svihel told authorities that he agreed to employ four workers from the Dominican Republic at his farm for the 2010 growing and harvesting season, from May to October. The number of Dominican H-2A workers on Svihel’s farm grew from four in 2010 to 68 in 2014 and 53 in 2015, according to court records.
Bart falsely claimed to Svihel that a Dominican church or charity paid for the workers’ travel, while the employees actually had to cover their own airfare. Svihel also pocketed roughly $90,000 in kickbacks from the workers that Bart ordered after the wage Svihel was required to pay workers increased in 2011.
The Dominican workers were also charged recruitment fees that ranged from $420 to $2,385, and an annual fee of $375 that Bart and Cabrera split. If they didn’t pay, workers were told, they would not be rehired at the 500-acre farm for the following growing season.