Restaurant owner gets four-month prison term for employing illegal immigrants

A Kingsville man who owned restaurants in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties was sentenced to four months in federal prison Thursday followed by four months' home detention after pleading guilty to the "harboring of unlawful aliens for financial gain."

George Anagnostou, 41, will report for incarceration on Jan. 3, leaving behind his four children, a troubled marriage and an ailing business — having already sold at least two others to pay his bills. He was ordered to forfeit nearly $750,000 in assets to the government earlier this month.

"His perspective that the rules didn't apply to him have led him here today," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Miller Yasser. He broke the law "continuously for 11 years straight."

Prosecutors pushed for a relatively stiff sentence, given Anagnostou's lack of a criminal history, to send a message to the business community that employing illegal residents will not be tolerated. A fine alone is an inadequate deterrent, Yasser argued, because restaurant owners would simply perform a "cost-benefit analysis" and continue the behavior if it paid off.

"There has to be a higher price for breaking the law," Yasser said, "especially in this case."

Nearly 30 people living in the country illegally were taken into custody for questioning in March, after federal and local authorities raided two of Anagnostou's restaurants — Timbuktu in Hanover and By the Docks in Middle River — along with two of his residential properties. He admitted to housing at least 24 "unauthorized alien employees," according to court records.

Most of the former employees were released after processing, said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but still face deportation. Six people who had outstanding deportation orders were held in custody. The raids focused on Anagnostou, Fobbs said, and not the illegal workers.

According to court records, Anagnostou was a repeat offender.

Timbuktu had been ordered to "cease and desist" from employing illegal immigrants in April 2000, shortly after Anagnostou bought the business from a cousin. He continued to employ the individuals at that restaurant, however, and brought similarly situated employees into By the Docks after becoming a co-owner in 2005, records show.

He has since sold his interest in the second restaurant, along with a shopping center, according to an employee's testimony Thursday morning.

A statement of facts within his plea agreement claims that Anagnostou instructed his staff to "stop asking questions" when presented with "obviously fake or fraudulent identification documents." He disregarded a warning from the Social Security Administration about mismatched identification numbers, and he guaranteed "continued labor" by housing the workers at a half-dozen properties, court records state.

Yasser said the conditions of some properties were deplorable: overcrowded, unsafe and poorly maintained. One residence burned nearly to the ground on Valentine's Day this year.

"The defendant employed these unlawful aliens precisely because of their" vulnerable status,Yasser said. "He didn't do this out of the goodness of his heart because he wanted to help people."

But Anagnostou's attorney, David B. Irwin, said the workers "loved it" and "flocked" to Anagnostou, who paid above minimum wage and offered time-and-a-half for overtime hours — in cash, however, without withholding the required taxes.

"If he hadn't given them the substandard places to live," they would have looked for similarly inexpensive dwellings elsewhere, Irwin said, claiming that the illegal workers brought their families into the homes, making them overcrowded.

Some of those workers are now working for Timbuktu's competitors, Irwin said, urging the government to again go after them, to level the playing field.

Irwin asked that his client be given probation, claiming Anagnostou had suffered enough by having to forfeit $730,000 in cash and a 2009 Harley Davidson motorcycle — assets the government said were traceable to the offense. Anagnostou's marriage is on shaky ground because of the financial pressures, Irwin said, and the family is likely to lose Timbuktu if Anagnostou is imprisoned.

Anagnostou choked back tears as he addressed the court. "I'm just sorry for my actions and the stress that I caused my family and my staff," he said, adding that he has "taken great measures to assure that this will not happen again."

Several high-profile business leaders — including John Paterakis Sr., who founded H&S Bakery before becoming a developer, and Martin Resnick, who owns Martin's Caterers — wrote letters supporting leniency for Anagnostou.

But U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said the crime deserved more than probation.

He commended Anagnostou for his commitment to family and country — Anagnostou is a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran — shortly before delivering his sentence.

But Nickerson said of incarceration, "I believe that is mandated."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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