KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Federal charges against the owners and operators of two Chinese restaurants in the Kansas City metropolitan area are the latest in an effort by federal prosecutors in Kansas to crack down on businesses that employ and harbor people who are working illegally.
U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom announced charges Wednesday against six people - most of whom are related - accused of "harboring undocumented workers" at Wei's Super Buffet restaurants in Olathe, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.
It's the fourth time in just over a year that Grissom's office has gone after businesses suspected of employing and harboring such workers, an approach he said is more cost-effective than "going out with school buses and rounding up illegal workers."
"Those would be replaced by other undocumented workers in a day," Grissom said. "It's a more effective use of taxpayers' money and a better prosecution tool to go after those who employ them. It sends a so much louder message to the business community."
A federal complaint filed Wednesday identifies defendants Wei Liu as the owner of the two restaurants; his wife, Xiang Liu, as manager of the Olathe restaurant; Jin Hui Liu as Wei Lieu's brother-in-law; and Huiqing Liu as Jin Hui's wife and Wei Liu's sister.
The other two defendants are Quan Liu, manager of the Kansas City restaurant and nephew of Jin Hui Lui; and Bin Liu, who lives with his wife at Wei Liu's home in Olathe. Neither Bin Liu's role in the restaurants nor his relationship to the others is detailed in court documents.
Wei Liu and Quan Liu did not have attorneys, according to federal court records. Jeremy Weis, a lawyer for Huiqing Liu, said he looks forward to defending his client. Lawyers for the other defendants did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
According to the complaint, agents with Homeland Security Investigations started watching the Olathe restaurant in early 2011. Investigators checked wage and tax documents and identified several employees who were illegally in the U.S.
When agents served search warrants Tuesday, they found six workers living in the basement of Jin Hui's home and six others living in an apartment leased by Quan Liu near the Kansas City restaurant, prosecutors said.
The workers were paid cash wages that amounted to less than minimum wage, and no taxes were taken out of those earnings, prosecutors said.
The case is similar to others involving Chinese restaurants and those working illegally, including two cases in Missouri in recent years.
In 2006, the owners of a Great Wall restaurant in Springfield were charged in federal court with harboring workers they had provided with a place to live and paid less than minimum wage - in cash, with no taxes taken out. The owners, who also were seen transporting several of the employees to work, claimed they were barely making ends meet and needed the lower-cost help to stay afloat.
Those owners, Miao De Zhang and Ai Hui Chen, were sentenced to a year of probation.
In December 2010, a Poplar Bluff, Mo., woman who managed a Chinese buffet restaurant pleaded guilty to harboring, transporting and hiring people living in the country illegally. She admitted providing housing for the workers and giving them rides to and from the restaurant to work.
The manager, Hua Huang, also pleaded guilty to structuring a financial transaction and conspiring to commit visa fraud. She was sentenced to a year in prison and had to forfeit several pieces of real estate, vehicles and $35,000 in cash.
Since September 2012, Grissom's office filed similar charges against the owners of hotels in Overland Park, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.; a Wichita company that owned several McDonald's restaurants; and a Spring Hill framing company.
"I hope anyone who sees the news accounts of the work we've done in the past year-and-a-half in this regard, that at least it would give them pause to say, 'Do I really want to put my assets at risk, put my liberty at risk, so I can compete unfairly against my competitors in my community?'" Grissom said.