A Ventura County flower rancher, originally charged with enslaving hundreds of farm laborers, pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to illegally smuggling hundreds of Mexican field workers into the United States and to violating federal labor laws.
The rancher, Edwin Mitchel Ives, also agreed to pay $1.5 million in restitution to laborers who worked at his 50-acre ranch in the Ventura County community of Somis in the 1980s.
In pleading guilty to seven counts, Ives, 55, admitted to a federal judge that he hired "mostly relatives of friends and neighbors of my employees," knowing some of them were undocumented.
As for a charge that he violated federal minimum wage laws, Ives said "we did not have a plan" to accurately record the hours that workers put in harvesting, dying, and bundling flowers and leaves for floral arrangements.
"Employees sometimes worked overtime without getting overtime pay," he told U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall.
In addition, Ives' firm, Griffith-Ives Co., pleaded guilty to corporate racketeering, the federal government's first organized crime conviction in a civil rights case.
As part of the plea bargain, the government dropped extortion counts against Ives and charges that he violated an 82-year-old anti-slavery statute.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam said the guilty plea "sends out the most powerful message we could send to employers who abuse their workers: They'll lose everything they've gained."
Ives became the 10th defendant in the case to plead guilty.
Specifically, he pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy between 1984 and 1987 that involved smuggling workers into the country and concealing them on his ranch just north of Camarillo. He also pleaded guilty to breaking the federal minimum-wage laws and of making false wage and hour reports to the U.S. Labor Department.
Ives faces a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. In addition, he could be fined almost $1 million and must pay $1.5 million in restitution to former workers for back wages as a part of the plea-bargain agreement.
If he had gone to trial and been found guilty of all charges, Ives would have faced the possibility of life imprisonment and lost $5 million in assets, including his three ranches.
Ives is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 3.