NYC restaurant owners charged with cooking books to hide wage violations for immigrant workers

By DAVID B. CARUSO , Associated Press
December 3, 2008

NEW YORK - Prosecutors charged the owners of a group of Vietnamese restaurants Wednesday with allegedly cooking their books to hide the pay and hours of immigrant workers, sending a stern warning to eateries that commit similar violations.

Simon and Michelle Nget, owners of the Saigon Grill restaurant group, are accused of failing to pay legal wages to dozens of employees at their popular Vietnamese restaurants in Manhattan and then fabricating records to conceal the violations.

In some cases, the restaurant tried to make it look like workers were being paid legally by having them cash regular paychecks, prosecutors said. Once the check cleared, however, the workers were required to give the money back, they said.

Over time, employees were cheated out of millions of dollars, officials said, adding that the state's unemployment insurance program was also cheated.

"Like so many restaurants across New York City, Saigon Grill was run on the backs of its workers," said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who brought the criminal case. "These workers allowed the business to thrive, and in exchange they were allegedly cheated out of wages ... and then pulled into a painstaking ploy to cover it all up."

The Ngets were arraigned Wednesday on charges of falsifying business records, tampering with physical evidence and offering a false instrument. Each charge carries a maximum of four years in prison, although they are unlikely to be sentenced that harshly and could get as little as probation.

The couple's attorney, Michael Weisberg, said his clients planned to post bail and be released. He defended them as hard workers who were unfairly targeted by labor activists.

"This is a case that was brought by these people," he said, pointing at a group of more than a dozen workers and community organizers in court to watch the arraignment.

The arrests are the culmination of a fierce public campaign that a coalition of small labor groups has been waging against the restaurant. Workers have been picketing, off and on, outside the Saigon Grill for more than a year.

A group of 36 Chinese-speaking delivery workers also sued, claiming they toiled for years at less than minimum wage. In October, a federal judge awarded them $4.6 million in back pay and penalties.

Lorelei Boylan, the state labor department's director of strategic enforcement, said off-the-books treatment of immigrant workers is a chronic issue in the city.

"It is a huge problem. I can't say that it is limited to just restaurants," she said, noting that the state has also found problems during recent enforcement sweeps aimed at grocery stores, factories and car-washing facilities.

Thousands of workers here earn their living off the books in industries where it is common to pay in cash and ask no questions about a worker's immigration status.

Labor activists have long complained that while these arrangements might help some immigrants find work, they also lead to exploitation by employers who ignore minimum wage laws and other labor rules.

Associated Press Writer Samuel Maull contributed to this report.