Alabama co. suspected of using illegal workers at Keesler

BILOXI — An Alabama business was raided this month as part of a federal probe that stems from suspected illegal immigrants working construction jobs at Keesler Air Force Base.

Federal immigration officials confirmed the March 17 raid on Hernandez Stucco in Alabaster, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. It’s at least the third business targeted as part of the ongoing investigation, according to attorneys in the case. The other businesses were in Mississippi. Court records also said one of the defendants operated a company in Louisiana.

U.S. District Court records in South Mississippi indicate that a new indictment is coming, though it’s not clear who the target is.

The telephone rang unanswered yesterday at a listed phone number for Stucco. The phone number was provided by officials at Alabaster City Hall, where the company is registered. City officials said government policy prohibits them from providing the owner’s name.

Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wednesday that nobody was arrested during the raid on Stucco.

The raid was made public Tuesday in a court filing by defense attorney Joe Sam Owen of Gulfport, who asked for a delay of the April 4 trial of three men already charged in Mississippi. The judge granted the motion Wednesday and then put the trial off until June 6.

Owen represents Randall Jacob Weitzel, identified in court records as the operator of both Artisan Textures Inc., based in Biloxi, and Procoat of LA, Inc., based in Baton Rouge, La.

Weitzel and an employee, Edwood S. Brodtmann, were indicted for conspiracy in 2009 and accused of knowingly hiring and harboring illegal immigrants, including some who allegedly worked for Artisan Textures at the Biloxi military base as far back as 2003. Weitzel also was charged with 17 counts of making false statements.

Another man, Agustin Arcadia, was indicted after immigration officials raided J&A Construction in Vancleave in Nov. 2010, Bennett said. Owen could not be reached for comment yesterday, and Arcadia’s attorney didn’t respond to a phone message.

Arthur Lemann of New Orleans, who represents Brodtmann, said his client is innocent.

Lemann said everyone who worked with his client had some type of identification, such as a driver’s license or Social Security card, and that the defendants thought they were legal residents. And he said Brodtmann wasn’t in charge of hiring, anyway.

Lemann said his client “was even more assured by the fact that the government independently vetted these people and gave them permits to go on a military base.”

He noted that at least one of his client’s workers was arrested at the base in 2005, a man Lemann said is now cooperating with authorities in their investigation.

Keesler Air Force Base is home to the 81st Training Wing and another unit known as the Hurricane Hunters, which flies into storms to gather data. It also has one of the largest Air Force medical facilities in the U.S.

Base officials did not immediately respond yesterday to questions about the suspected illegal immigrants.

An indictment charges Weitzel with renting homes for illegal immigrants as far back as 2000. It says police raided the homes in 2004, but federal immigration officials didn’t have the resources to detain the illegal immigrants at the time. An unnamed coconspirator rented hotel rooms to hide the men, prosecutors claim.

A Biloxi police report from Oct. 2004 said at least a dozen people at the homes admitted being illegal immigrants and said they worked for Artisan Textures. The workers also said they had been working for Artisan on a job at the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, according to the report.

Prosecutors maintain they have proof that Weitzel knew some of his workers were illegal, including the accusation that in 2003 he stopped paying a worker under one name and began paying him under another name.

Weitzel also is accused of signing certified payrolls for the construction project at Keesler and knowing that the names, withholdings and deductions he listed weren’t accurate.

Prosecutors don’t say in court records how many suspected illegal immigrants were involved. Lemann said he’s not sure, either, because the government won’t tell him.

Whatever the case, Lemann said his client is being unfairly targeted and could face prison time if convicted even though no one went to prison after a different raid in Mississippi that turned out to be the largest workplace raid in U.S. history.

Howard Industries was fined $2.5 million after nearly 600 illegal workers were found at its transformer plant in Laurel in 2008.

One company official was charged and recently sentenced to six months house arrest.

Source: Associated Press

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