The principal owner of the Kawasaki restaurants in Baltimore received a 5-month prison sentence yesterday for knowingly hiring illegal workers, a relatively heavy penalty won by prosecutors as part of a growing national effort to dissuade employers from violating federal immigration law.
In addition to the prison term, Tzu Ming Yang must spent three years on probation after his release, including five months on home detention.
"I'm very sorry for what happened," Yang said in U.S. District Court in downtown Baltimore yesterday. Echoing the sentiment of employers who say finding documented workers for menial labor is a Herculean task, Yang added: "I know I broke the law, but I felt I had no choice."
His business partner, Jack Chang, was sentenced to three years' probation, 10 months of which will be served under confinement at his home. Yang's wife, Jui Fan Lee Yang, was given a sentence of two years' probation.
All three have paid about $700,000 in restitution and agreed to pay an equivalent amount in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. The restaurant owners must each also complete between 50 and 100 hours of community service, according to the sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake.
Immigration officials in Washington point to the case as a prime example of a new policy to target employers who willingly hire illegal immigrants despite past warnings.
"This does represent a new area of emphasis by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on work-site enforcement," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in an interview yesterday. "I think it's important that all employers know you can face prison time and forfeiture of assets if you knowingly employ illegal immigrants."
But judges across the U.S. still treat the violations differently. In a separate case in San Diego yesterday, the president and the vice president of a California fence company escaped prison time and were sentenced to three years' probation, including six months of home confinement, for hiring illegal workers.
The company, Golden State Fence Co., had done work on the U.S.-Mexico border fence and repeatedly hired illegal immigrants despite warnings from federal agents as far back as 1999.
In the Kawasaki case, Blake said her sentence reflected the seriousness of the crimes. Prosecutors described the Charles Street flagship restaurant as a place where illegal immigrants worked for paltry wages and lived upstairs in filthy conditions while diners below feasted on some of Baltimore's best sushi.
"The employment of these illegal immigrants was for profit," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Levin told the judge.
Conditions included a lack of running water and a broken toilet, Levin said.
It was a far cry from the reputation that the restaurant won publicly, earning praise from reviewers and a loyal customer base. Yang, 48, and his wife, who live in Clarksville, opened the Kawasaki Restaurant in the 400 block of N. Charles St. in 1984. A cafe in Fells Point and a satellite operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital were later added.
Immigration agents said the presence of illegal workers at Kawasaki was a long-standing problem.
In June 1997, an immigration agent issued a warning to Tzu Yang, telling him that he had employed two illegal workers. The investigation appears to have been reopened in September 2002 when federal agents received an anonymous letter accusing Kawasaki of employing illegal immigrants, court papers show. Agents investigated, discovering that the owners bought real estate to house their illegal workers,
In April, Tzu Yang and Chang pleaded guilty to harboring immigrants and money laundering. Yang's wife pleaded guilty to a related misdemeanor charge.
Based on the owners' pleas, federal sentencing guidelines called for Yang to be jailed for 10 months to 16 months and Chang for six months to a year. There were no solid guidelines for Yang's wife, who could have received a maximum of six months for pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge.
Attorneys for the owners argued that their clients agreed to hire illegal immigrants only because they were unable to find willing workers. The labor shortage grew so desperate, according to Tzu Yang's attorney, Gregg L. Bernstein, that the Kawasaki owner washed dishes.
The owners, Bernstein added, "were not making a terrific amount of money." Their houses and luxury cars had been purchased on credit and held little in equity, the lawyer said.
Blake, who had flexibility in crafting sentences to include probation and home confinement, concluded that the defendants deserved to be sentenced at the low end of the guidelines.
The large restitution paid by the restaurant owners, the judge said, went a "long way" toward sending a message to other employers about the potential perils of hiring illegal immigrants.
Still, the Kawasaki restaurants soldier on.
City records show that the restaurant and the liquor license for the Charles Street property were sold to Joseph K Jiau, who also owns and operates the Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar, a popular restaurant in downtown Annapolis.
At a Jan. 4 liquor board hearing that approved his purchase, Jiau told commissioners that he took out a loan for about $1 million to cover the purchase of the restaurant and the liquor license, as well as renovations.
But Bernstein, Tzu Yang's attorney, said last night that the business is owned by Yang's sister. It was unclear last night whether the sister and Jiau own the business jointly.
The cafe in Fells Point has been sold but continues to operate as a sushi restaurant, lawyers said. Chang is employed there, his attorney said yesterday.
Tzu Yang, once a gregarious figure on the local restaurant scene and active in community activities, might not disappear for long. Bernstein told the judge yesterday that Yang hoped to help manage the Charles Street restaurant for his sister when it reopens.
Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.