Federal prosecutors, hoping to send a message to employers inclined to mistreat illegal aliens, secured a guilty plea Monday from a Valley Center rancher accused of pocketing taxes deducted from his workers' paychecks.
Donald N. Werner, owner of Werner Ranches, agreed to pay a fine of $25,000 in exchange for prosecutors' agreement not to seek a prison term for his failure to turn over about $15,400 in Social Security taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. Earlier, he had paid the back taxes and about $5,000 in interest and penalties, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip L.B. Halpern.
The offense, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.
In February, 1984, about 20 of Werner's employees--including several illegal aliens--complained to state officials that they were not being paid for their work, Halpern said. A federal probe uncovered the tax violation that resulted in Werner's guilty plea.
"This is going to be putting out the message to other employers of illegal aliens that the federal government is examining how they treat their laborers, and that we will not tolerate abuses in this area," Halpern said.
Werner's attorney, Michael Lipman, said Monday that Werner and the workers were both victims of a ranch manager who diverted money the ranch owner intended for his employees.
"This employer did not mistreat or abuse anybody," Lipman said. "He relied on what he thought was a professional grove manager and a professional bookkeeper to run the grove and run it properly.
"Subsequent to hiring them, after awhile, he realized the ranch manager was stealing from him. The ranch manager was not treating aliens the way anybody should be treated."
Werner nonetheless pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge because prosecutors offered a good deal, given his poor health and the cost of the litigation, Lipman said.
By prosecuting the case to a conclusion, Halpern said, the federal government kept faith with illegal alien workers who jeopardized their ability to remain in the United States by complaining to authorities about conditions at the ranches. Most illegal aliens are reluctant to speak up about mistreatment because they fear that they will be deported, he explained.
"Only by regulating this type of behavior can we ensure that migrant laborers have decent working conditions," he said.