Feds Tackle Huge Farmworker Scam That Should Never Have Occurred

By David North on December 6, 2021

This is one of those good news/bad news items.

The government has just closed down a huge, nasty scheme to exploit foreign farmworkers mostly brought to this country as H-2A temporary nonimmigrants. That’s highly commendable.

On the other hand, the government should never have allowed the entrance of large numbers of mostly Mexican farmworkers into a poverty-stricken area in Georgia just north of the Florida line near the Okefenokee Swamp.

The farmworkers were abused every way from Sunday: There were the usual terrible living quarters, the seizure of their passports, and the payment of excessive and illegal fees. Some workers were forced to dig onions out of the Georgia soil with their bare hands and there was a rape, an attempted murder of one of the farmworkers, and two deaths.

I have been reading (and sometimes writing) about farmworker exploitation for three score years, but I don’t remember anything of this scale. The federal indictment is 50 pages long, 24 different people were indicted in Waycross, Ga., and one of the criminal acts was the use of casinos to launder many millions in ill-gotten gains. You have to cheat a whole lot of farmworkers to obtain that much money.

I will get to some of those details later, but let’s pay attention to where this occurred. Waycross is the county seat of Ware County, where much of the criminal activity took place.

Ware is a rural county with a population of 35,000 or so; a little over 30 percent of the people are Black and 26.5 percent are living under the poverty line. The labor force participation rate was 49.9 percent, according to the most recent Census data. This compares with the state-wide figure of 61 percent.

This data suggests that there is a partially hidden labor surplus and that there was absolutely no need to import foreign workers, but some growers must prefer the non-assertive Mexican farmworkers to the local (largely Black) workforce and that the Department of Labor agreed with the farmers’ whims. A more equitable way to meet any farmworker “shortage” would be to adjust wages and working conditions a tad to lure more people into the labor force.

The federal case is USA v. Patricio et al, Operation Blooming Onion and can be seen in the PACER files as case 5:2021-cr–00009-LGW-BWC. The criminal conspiracy charged is the “Patricio TCO” (transnational criminal organization).

Much of the indictment is filled with page after page of convincing detail, such as this from p. 19: “On or about March 7, 2019, Defendant Maria Leticia Patricio ... mailed Petition WAC1913750688 to ... the government. [It] sought 316 foreign workers. ... As a result ... Victims 55, 56, 57, and 65 entered the United States to work for the Patricio TCO.”

And again, on p 29: “On or about November 18, 2019, a member of the Patricio TCO purchased the OK Corral, a restaurant, dance, and night club in Alma, Georgia for $212,000 in cash."

The Facebook listing for it lists an address of 121 Muskrat Road, Alma, Ga. The page shows its “business hours”, including, oddly, that it closes at 8 pm on Saturday nights.

There are pages and pages of items like those cited.

Puzzles. But as we kept reading the indictment, three puzzles emerged:

  1. Why, with a list of 24 alleged criminals, in a territory full of white farmers, were only three of the names non-Hispanic?
  2. There was a multi-million-dollar contact with an unnamed casino, which seems odd.
  3. Did the conspirators, who seemed to prey only on farmworkers, really get $200 million, as p. 5 of the indictment states? That’s an astounding figure.

1. Ethnicity. Another oddity about this case is that the main conspirator is a woman; she is Maria Leticia Patricio. The 21 with Hispanic names, according to the indictment, included 14 U.S. citizens, only one of whom was noted as naturalized; four illegal aliens; two green card holders; and one whose status was not noted, but who had arrived as an H-2A. The three with non-Hispanic names included two white men and a Black man, all three U.S. citizens. They are Charles Michael King and Brett Donavan Bussey, both white, and Stanley Neal McGauley who is Black.

King owned a farm and was a registered agent of a packing operation (Hilltop Packing House), Bussy married into one of the Hispanic families among the conspirators, and McGauley was recorded as owning Hilltop Packing.

Given that usually in the cases of farmworker exploitation the beneficiaries are white farm operators, the ethnicity mix of the conspirators seemed unusual. That among those charged was one of the state’s tiny population of Black farmers just underlined the situation. Did some white farmers whose workers were victimized not know about what was happening on their farms? Did they benefit in some way but were not charged? After all, while some of the workers were shaken down before they left Central America and Mexico, most of the crimes were committed here in the States and on white-owned farms. Strange.

2. The Money-Losing Casino. This is from p. 27 of the indictment:

Hiding the Illegal Profits

ii. From at least in and around 2015 and continuing through in or around 2020, members of the Patricio TCO funneled over $13,000,000 in cash into casinos.

jj. From at least in and around 2015 and continuing through in or around 2020, members of the Patricio TCO obtained more than $23,000,000 in casino winnings.

There is either a major mistake in the crafting of these two sentences, or they an indication of a world-class gambling skill on the part of Patricio TCO, or a chain of unbelievable luck. Or maybe the casino operators were asleep at the gaming tables.

When money is laundered through a casino the usual practice, I am told, is that there are private rooms where a low-risk and a potentially low-profitability form of gambling takes place for just long enough for the “gamblers” to exchange their dirty money for chips and a little later exchange the chips for clean money. The casinos get a fee of some sort, and the money is now untraceable; everybody gains something and nobody loses much, if anything.

So the running of millions through a casino is not news, the loss of $10 million by the casino where there is a $13 million stake is either big news or unbelievable. Unfortunately for Georgia punters, the casino is not named in the indictment.

3. The Sum of $200 Million. This is from p. 5 of the indictment: “11. The Patricio TCO illegally profited over $200,000,000 from this illegal scheme.”

Two hundred million is a lot of money. This sum was not taken from corporations or banks with large balances, it was extracted a few dollars at a time from the wages not paid to farmworkers and from other moneys extorted from those workers. Accepting that the $10 million profit from the hapless casino is true, we still have $190 million taken from the farmworkers. How can you reach $190 million by exploiting farmworkers over a period of five years?

Let’s divide the $190 million by five for a target of $38 million a year.

To get that much from the farmworkers there would have to be a lot of them, and let’s take 2,000 of them as a guess for these purposes. Let’s assume that they worked more than full-time while they were here (for most of the year) and use 2,000 hours a year for the amount of time they worked. To reach the $38 million goal we would need four million hours worked in a given year; thus, the extraction from the workers would have to be at the average rate of $9.50 an hour to meet the $38 million a year target.

If there were 3,000 workers under the thumb of Patricio TCO, for the same length of time, that would produce an hourly diversion rate of $6.33.

What the TCO did in many cases was to file papers with the Labor Department with forged names of employers; the TCO would then rent the workers to farmers and take a major hunk of the wages for themselves. Some of the conspirators sold these workers to each other.

I suspect that a lot of money was involved in this slimy deal, but $200 million may be a stretch on the part of the indictment writer and the inclusion of that unsupported number may turn out (as I hope it does not) to handicap the prosecution.

No One Detained. Despite the claim of $200 million being involved, no one seems to be detained pending the trial. The government at first wanted to detain King and McGauley, but withdrew the idea. The judge turned down the government’s efforts to detain one of those with Hispanic names, Delia Ibarra Rojas, who had bounced back and forth over the U.S./Mexico border with money obtained from the workers before they started to work. The sums were usually just shy of $10,000 per trip.

I saw no bonds demanded for more than $50,000. In the case of Patricio, she had what appears to be her daughter-in-law put up her house in Nicholls, Ga., (where Patricio apparently lives) as bond. That house is so modest that it did not warrant a price from Zillow, the house valuation website. Neighboring houses were mostly in the $7,000-$56,000 range.

The bonding information seems to clash with the $200 million claim and/or to suggest that the judge was not very worried about anyone leaving the country. I checked Zillow on the value of some of the other defendants’ homes and found none of them valued at more than $280,000.

All of these numbers are in complete contrast with the stories of EB-5 (immigrant investor) program conspirators, many of whom routinely took expensive trips and bought yachts, sports cars, and expensive mansions.

I am not suggesting that the government’s case is not sound. It is just a different sort of situation than other kinds of immigration fraud.

Remaining Questions. One might ask: Didn’t the employers (mostly English-only monolinguals like this author) see what was happening?

How could so much money be stolen from so many people for a period of over five years without some authorities noticing?

My sense is that this could not be done for so long or for so much in an urban setting in which the workers might be in touch with other Spanish-speaking people. This happened in a rural setting with a major linguistic wall, where the victims were isolated (sometimes behind electric fences), where the local establishment did not care, and where the federal government was amazingly ineffective for years until it finally did the right thing.

I hope this goes to trial, rather than being pled out, so that we can learn more about what happened on these farms in southeast Georgia.