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Feds allege labor trafficking scheme involving Walworth County Fairgrounds workers

Posted at 1:26 PM, Aug 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-20 19:20:14-04

WALWORTH COUNTY — A complaint filed in federal court alleges an elaborate labor trafficking scheme involving migrant workers at the Walworth County Fairgrounds.

The complaint filed last week accuses a Honduran native apparently responsible for managing other migrant workers of participating in a bait-and-switch style plot to bring immigrant workers coming to the U.S. for work, legally, using H-2B visas. TMJ4 News is not naming the suspect at this time, since he is awaiting formal charges.

Others were named in the complaint as well, including at least one member of the Walworth County Agricultural Society (WCAS), but all other names were redacted on the court records available online.

The complaint states the 40 H-2B visas were approved for Mexican natives to work from April 1 of this year to November 30. An investigation found six of those visas were used for Honduran natives, four of which came forward to report the alleged crimes to investigators.

According to the complaint, when they received their visas and prepared to work in the U.S., they were told they would be sent to Michigan for landscaping work, which would pay more than $15 an hour.

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But when they landed in Chicago at O'Hare airport, they were instead taken to Walworth County, where they worked at the fairgrounds shoveling horse manure and changing garbage cans for $9.50 an hour, according to court documents.

Workers reported poor living conditions to the agents. One worker told federal investigators he slept next to the bathroom, which would leak sewage into his bedroom.

According to the complaint, another worker reported to a WCAS member that they could not work in Wisconsin because their visa was for the state of Michigan. The member assured them they would rectify the situation, which did not happen, according to the court documents. The complaint says that phone call was recorded and handed over to federal agents.

When workers approached the man named in the complaint about the working conditions and being in the wrong state, they told investigators they were threatened with deportation. The suspect also told them their visas had been extended for three years, so they could work in a circuit that included cutting down pine trees in California and filleting salmon in Alaska, according to the complaint. The workers told agents the suspect never showed them new petitions for extended visas.

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Federal agents believed the scheme had been going on for more than a decade. The complaint says while the man named in the complaint was drunk, one of the workers secretly took photos of a ledger that included the names of workers with dollar figures next to them, according to the complaint.

The agent writing the complaint stated someone else, not the man named in the complaint, was investigated for "petition padding" meaning they were applying for more H-2B visas than was needed, as far back as 2008. The name of the subject of that investigation was redacted.

The General Manager of the fairgrounds, Larry Gaffey told TMJ4 News federal agents searched the records of a third party company that works with the fair, but he did not know much else about the investigation when asked about WCAS members named in the complaint.

He says they are fully cooperating with federal authorities as the investigation continues.

Electronic court records show agents made an arrest on August 10. The arraignment for formal charges is scheduled for next week.