Asplundh Tree Expert Co., one of the largest privately owned corporations in the country, with 30,000 employees and 3.5 billion in annual sales, according to Forbes, has been ordered to pay $95 million in the largest fine against a company for hiring thousands of immigrants who did not have permission to work in the U.S., according to federal officials. Asplundh, a 90-year-old, family-owned company that employs 30,000 workers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, clears brush and vegetation from electric and gas lines and holds many municipal, state, and federal contacts.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia, Asplundh employed thousands of undocumented workers between the years of 2010 and 2014 with its top management remaining “willfully blind” while lower level managers hired and rehired employees they knew to be ineligible to work in the United States,” the office said. In addition to having to forfeit $80 million, Asplundh will pay a $15 million civil penalty for not complying with immigration law. Asplundh employed thousands of undocumented workers between 2010 and 2014 with its top management remaining “willfully blind” while lower-level supervisors hired people they knew were in the country illegally to maximize profit.

Homeland Security Investigations began auditing Asplundh Tree Experts on Nov. 19, 2009 to make sure the company complied with federal laws regarding the hiring of immigrants. After being given a list of names, Asplundh fired hundreds of its employees who were ineligible to work in the U.S. Others quit before they could be terminated. After acting like it was complying with HSI demands, Asplundh instead doubled down on its illegal practices, according to federal authorities. Many of the some employees Asplundh had just let go were re-hired under different names using fake or illegally obtained documents. One of its regional managers, Larry Gauger, even went so far as to tell supervisors who worked under him that they had “plausible deniability” because their illegally obtained social security numbers would be positive matches in the E-verify database, court papers state. Gauger has pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

“This decentralized model tacitly perpetuated fraudulent hiring practices that, in turn, maximized productivity and profit,” prosecutors said in a statement. “With a motivated workforce, including unauthorized aliens willing to be relocated and respond to weather-related events around the nation, Asplundh had crews which were easily mobilized that enabled them to dominate the market.”

ICE issued a statement on 9/28/2017, “Today marks the end of a lengthy investigation by ICE Homeland Security Investigations into hiring violations committed by the highest levels of Asplundh’s organization,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan. “Today’s judgment sends a strong, clear message to employers who scheme to hire and retain a workforce of illegal immigrants: we will find you and hold you accountable. Violators who manipulate hiring laws are a pull factor for illegal immigration, and we will continue to take action to remove this magnet.”

In a statement on its website, Asplundh said company officials “accept responsibility for the charges as outlined, and we apologize to our customers, associates and all other stakeholders for what has occurred.” Asplundh went on to say that is reviewing the identification of every employee and is adding a photo ID card system which includes the same facial recognition software used by ICE. The company is also adding a compliance specialist trained in ID examination in each region it does business.

Employers should remain alert and vigilant in their I-9 compliance practices. The Asplundh investigation is a lesson in compliance, demonstrating that liability exists not only in the evidence apparent in the paperwork, but also in an employer’s procedures, policies, and practices. An ICE investigation can be triggered from any number of sources, from an enforcement initiative within Homeland Security Investigations to a tip from an individual to the exchange of data between government agencies (SSA, IRS, DOL, etc.). An ICE investigation can result in more than just financial losses due to monetary penalties. These types of investigations, which can often carry on for years, result in the loss of workers and damage to company reputations and image, affecting relationships with customers and the public in general. Our recommendation on best practices is for employers to be prepared by performing private internal audits before ICE comes knocking.

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Alka Bahal is a Partner and the Co-Chair of the Corporate Immigration Practice of Fox Rothschild LLP. Alka is situated in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though she practices throughout the United States and at Consulates worldwide. You can reach Alka at (973) 994-7800, or abahal@foxrothschild.com.