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Rancher Will Be Sentenced Over Labor Violations : Somis: Edwin M. Ives, 57, could be placed on probation today or imprisoned up to 16 years for seven charges in connection with his treatment of Mexican farm workers.

September 13, 1993|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 3 1/2 years after Edwin M. Ives was first charged with enslaving farm workers, the Somis rancher is scheduled today to be sentenced on seven criminal violations of labor and immigration law.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall could place Ives, 57, on probation or sentence him to a maximum of 16 years in prison.

Prosecutors argue for a 15-year prison sentence, saying a stiff sentence would set an example for other abusive employers and improve conditions for farm laborers. But defense lawyers insist that Ives was a good employer to whom workers returned year after year.

Though the slavery charges were dropped in a plea bargain last year, the government still maintains that Ives virtually imprisoned laborers recruited from rural Mexican villages during the 1980s, forcing them to work for sub-minimum wages and buy the necessities of life at inflated prices from a company store.

"For all the wretchedness of the lives that were at his mercy, he must bear the fullest responsibility," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam last week in a memo to the judge. "His repeated attempts to trivialize the seriousness of his offense should be rejected."

But Ives' lawyer, Robert Talcott, argued that the $1.5-million fine Ives has agreed to pay constitutes a punishment harsher than any ever paid by an employer for similar offenses. And Talcott insisted that Ives is a victim of government prosecutors who filed charges far more serious than were justified.

"They started out with this ill-conceived, unfounded allegation (of slavery) and gave this case greater importance than it ever, ever deserved," Talcott said.

Marshall is expected to sentence Ives immediately after a 3 p.m. hearing in federal court in Los Angeles, attorneys said.

Ives, 57, of Los Angeles, pleaded guilty last year to corporate racketeering, the federal government's first organized-crime conviction in a civil rights case. He also agreed to pay $1.5 million in back wages to 300 former workers, the stiffest fine ever levied in a U.S. immigration case.

Ives also personally admitted to seven labor and immigration crimes, including harboring and transporting illegal immigrants, failing to pay minimum wages and overtime and forcing workers to buy equipment from him that was necessary for their jobs.

In exchange for Ives' plea, the U.S. attorney's office agreed to dismiss extortion and peonage counts that brought the case notoriety as the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history when it broke in 1990.

Defense attorneys argue in hundreds of pages of pre-sentencing documents that Ives has already suffered enormously and could pay his debt to society without going to prison.

"Irrespective of the sentence he will eventually receive, Ed Ives has already been singled out for harsher prosecution than virtually any other agricultural employer who is caught in similar circumstances," the defense argues in a report to Marshall.

"The violations Ed has admitted making . . . were commonplace in agriculture during the 1980s," the report says. "His sins were the sins of an entire industry."

Also cited prominently by defense attorneys are more than 250 letters of support from people arguing for a lenient sentence.

Friends, relatives, business associates, several pastors and rabbis, members of Ives' temple and neighbors in Somis and the Fairfax area of Los Angeles have all vouched for the rancher's good deeds and integrity, lawyers said.

The sentencing report depicts Ives as a model father and husband who has contributed heavily to charitable causes.

Joseph P. Rosenblatt, associate director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, states in a letter that he "can recall no other instance in which I feel there is such a dichotomy between what I know of a man's character and the nature of the charges leveled against him."

Rosenblatt said Ives made an unsolicited $18,000 donation to a new children's hospital in Israel in 1989, with the only condition being that Ives not be identified as the donor.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, recommends a sentence of community service.

"He has a reputation in our community as being a kind person, responsive to those less fortunate and an active participant in community affairs," Hier writes. "He is a deeply religious person and, I am sure, is now engaged in religious introspection. His life will never be the same!"

Two agencies have offered to sponsor Ives' community service, according to the sentencing report. One would use Ives to help start a flower business at a re-entry center for Jewish alcoholics and criminals. At the second, he would help newly arrived Haitian immigrants find work in the Los Angeles area.

Prosecutors, however, insist that community service would be a slap on the wrist. Only a severe sentence would force the rancher to accept the seriousness of his crimes, they argue.

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