Crime - Sacto 911

Natural foods firm to pay $1.5 following ICE investigation

A natural foods company in Butte County has agreed to pay $1.5 million following a federal investigation into potential criminal violations of federal immigration laws.

Mary’s Gone Crackers Inc., based in Gridley, also agreed to establish a corporate compliance program under a nonprosecution agreement reached with the U.S Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of California, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office news release.

In March 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials audited Mary’s Gone Crackers’ I-9 forms, which employers must complete to verify the identity and employment authorization for employees to work in the United States.

In May 2012, ICE notified the company that 49 of its employees appeared not to be authorized to work in the United States, authorities said. After one employee provided corrected documentation, Mary’s Gone Crackers informed ICE that the other 48 had resigned or been terminated.

Within less than a month, however, the company rehired at least 13 employees that it claimed had been terminated or resigned, all of them under new names. One of those 13, an operations supervisor, had never stopped working for the company, but instead continued to work under a new assumed name and received payment as an independent contractor, authorities said.

Several other employees knew that the operations supervisor was not eligible to work in the United States. When federal law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at the company’s Gridley facility in January 2013, at least 12 of the 13 people who had been rehired were still working at Mary’s Gone Crackers.

According to the nonprosecution agreement, during the course of the I-9 audit and its rehiring of individuals, the company had at times consulted an outside counsel from the Chico area.

After the search warrant, the company cooperated with the government’s investigation and took remedial measures, including terminating employees, ceasing to use the outside counsel involved and taking various steps to ensure compliance with immigration laws and I-9 regulations, including use of E-Verify and the Social Security Verification Service. The company also established an anonymous tip line so employees can report any potential I-9 issues.

The nonprosecution agreement requires Mary’s Gone Crackers to establish a corporate compliance program covering its I-9 procedures and its use of the E-Verify system. It also requires disclosure of violations of immigration laws or regulations within 24 hours of discovery. In addition, the company must provide corporate compliance reporting to the U.S. Attorney’s office for two years.

No federal criminal charges will be brought against Mary’s Gone Crackers for the conduct discovered during the investigation if it complies with the terms of the nonprosecution agreement, authorities said. The agreement is only between the government and the company, and does not pertain to specific individuals.

The case resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy