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Farmer gets 6 months after he knowingly harbored illegal workers

Monte Benz of Steele, N.D., an owner Kidco Farms processing plant in Dawson, manages his own onion production. He was sentenced to three months in prison for illegally harboring undocumented workers. File photo from July 2007. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

FARGO -- Farmer and businessman Monte Benz of Steele, N.D., on Aug. 3 was sentenced to six months in jail, three months of supervised release, and a $100,000 fine for harboring undocumented workers for his Dawson, N.D., food processing company.

In a separate but related case, Richard Shearer, 57, of Royal City, Wash., the worker supply contractor from Washington state, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, plus three years of supervised release and a payment of $20,000.

Both defendants pled guilty and have 14 days to appeal the sentences. Both men and their lawyers declined to comment after the hearing.

Shearer must surrender to federal authorities by Sept. 14. Benz must surrender by Oct. 19, which allows him time to complete the harvest and make arrangements for running the operation. Benz can be housed in local jails in North Dakota and Shearer in Washington, instead of federal prisons.

U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson in Fargo said he had to impose a jail sentence on both men, despite guilty pleas and lighter punishment proposal agreements between prosecutors and the defense.

In the Benz case, the lawyers had agreed to only home confinement, but Erickson said that would mean North Dakotans would have a "huge home field advantage." Human traffickers for financial gain from other states have been given stiffer penalties.

Benz, 52, pled guilty to charges that he arranged housing and transportation for illegal foreign workers to the Kidco Farms Inc. plant in Dawson, where workers make vegetable kits with carrots, potatoes and onions for slow-cook meals.

Two employees further allege a need for restitution for about $17,000 and about $8,000, an issue that will be addressed in a hearing to be scheduled in about two months.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Healey had argued that a lighter sentence in the agreement was appropriate because Benz wasn't making money on the harboring of employees.

Shearer provided Kidco Farms with six to 24 workers between January 2012 and September 2013, according to the indictments. The exact number wasn't described but would have been determined if there had been a trial. Shearer and his attorney, Lorelle Moeckel of Fargo, N.D., argued that Shearer relied on documentation that turned out to be incorrect.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry," Shearer said before the sentencing.

Treatment dispute

Erickson said when Shearer's workers who were given to Benz, they were allegedly "virtually enslaved, held under conditions that were inhumane," an issue Benz's attorney, Shanon Gregor, disputed.

Gregor said the information about worker treatment "taken at face value, sounds very awful," but is "not supported by evidence."

Gregor said Benz and Kidco Farms turned to Shearer for workers because it had constant turnover when trying to supply workers from area employment agencies. Erickson said it is a supply and demand issue, adding the solution isn't to hire undocumented workers.

Gregor said Benz' fault was that he trusted workers "at their word," but admitted he should have double-checked.

Erickson also said the fact that Kidco Farms was paying workers in cash indicates they weren't able to establish their own bank accounts and was  "clear evidence of lack of (Iegal) status."

Full responsibility

In his final statement, Benz said he "accepts full responsibility" for the situation, but noted he fialed in some of his responsibilities.

Benz was flanked by more than 25 supporters, including his parents and a clergyman, and had submitted numerous letters commending his entrepreneurship, philanthropy and community involvement.

Kidco Farms originally was owned by five individuals and started processing in 2003. Today it is owned by two shareholders -- Benz, and Van Amundson of Jamestown, N.D., a leader in regional potato and beef organizations, who attended with other supporters but declined comment.

In a separate case, David Lee Sorgatz was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor in connection to May 17 vandalism Kidco Farms. That case goes to a Kidder County District Judge John Greenwood on Aug. 17.