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2 from Houston plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy in Chinese restaurant employment referrals

BEAUMONT, Texas — A man and woman from Houston pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering violations in connection with an employment referral conspiracy.

This case was investigated by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Lina Sun, 54, and Chenglun Ma, 57, pleaded guilty to racketeering influenced and corrupt organizations (RICO) conspiracy charges before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin.

According to court documents, two Houston-based employment-referral businesses recruited unauthorized workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America, to work in the Chinese restaurant industry. These recruited workers routinely worked 12 hours per day, six days per week; they were not paid overtime, not permitted to receive tips or gratuities, and were paid in cash by the restaurants.

The restaurants profited by avoiding paying employment taxes; and they did not provide any benefits such as health insurance, vacation or sick time. Workers were paid far less than minimum wage, did not receive health examinations, food-safety training, or job training at any time while employed.

Additionally, these workers were subjected to unfavorable living arrangements provided by the restaurant operators, either at the operator's residence or at another off-site residential location. Living arrangements were overcrowded; 18 people were found to be housed in a 2,000 square-foot house. Sleeping arrangement sometimes consisted of air mattresses or floors.

Federal indictments were returned Nov. 7, 2013, charging 32 individuals with RICO conspiracy and conspiracy to transport, harbor, and encourage and induce aliens to reside in the United States.

Sun and Ma each face a maximum 20-year prison sentence. A sentencing date has not been set.

"Those who think that they can build their businesses on a foundation of corrupt and illegal activities will eventually see those enterprises crumble," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. "Today's pleas cap a multi-year investigation of the Hong Li Job Agency and the Tai Shan Employment Agency by HSI and our partners in the Eastern District of Texas that weakened the business foundations and brought down these two corrupt enterprises."

The following offices and agencies also participated in this investigation: HSI Dallas, San Antonio and New Orleans; U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine; U.S. Marshals Service; and police departments in Houston, Port Arthur and Beaumont.