A federal judge on Monday ordered a Ventura County flower rancher originally charged with enslaving hundreds of Mexican laborers to spend three years in prison, a sentence prosecutors said would send a message to abusive employers throughout the country.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall in Los Angeles also directed Edwin M. Ives, 57, to pay $1.5 million in back wages to former workers, a fine prosecutors say is the highest ever levied in a U.S. immigration case.
"This case is an outstanding example of how the federal justice system can protect and vindicate the rights of exploited and abused workers," U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers said.
While imposing a sentence Ives' lawyers considered severe, Marshall's sentence was far less than the 15-year imprisonment recommended by prosecutors.
And the judge pointedly rejected prosecution claims that Ives had run a slave ranch within his 50-acre Ventura County compound during the 1980s.
Marshall said her sentence was based solely on Ives' guilty plea last year to seven criminal violations of labor and immigration law, including transporting and harboring illegal immigrants and payment of substandard wages.
The judge said she had seen "no evidence of slavery," extortion or racketeering by Ives--charges that brought the case international notoriety as the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history when it broke in 1990.
"I'm disappointed in the sentence, but it (reflects) exactly what this case was about from its inception. It was an immigration and wage case, not a slavery case," defense attorney Robert Talcott said.
Ives, a quiet man who could not complete his comments to Marshall because of emotion, appeared devastated by the sentence. Afterward he stood nearly speechless, accepting comfort from his family and dozens of friends.
"The sentence is a shock," Talcott said.
Before the hearing Ives had said in an interview, "Basically I'm looking to forgive everybody and to be forgiven."
In his comments to the judge, he said: "There are no means to adequately express the depth of hurt and suffering that has befallen me and my loved ones . . . The shame and disgrace of this has disrupted our lives forever."
Where Ives will be incarcerated remains unclear. That decision will be made by the U.S. Department of Prisons during the next 60 days. Marshall said she does not oppose community confinement, but prosecutors said it is almost certain Ives will be sent to a federal minimum security prison because of the length of his sentence.
Though slavery charges were dropped in a plea bargain last year, prosecutors have continued to argue that Ives virtually imprisoned laborers recruited from rural Mexican villages during the 1980s, forcing them to work for sub-minimum wages and to buy the necessities of life at inflated prices from a company store.
"Ed Ives is not just any other rancher," Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam argued Monday. "He had a very dirty criminal enterprise inside."
But Talcott argued that the $1.5-million restitution constitutes a punishment harsher than any ever paid by an employer for similar offenses. And the lawyer insisted that Ives is a victim of government prosecutors who filed charges far more serious than were justified.
Ives, 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.
Ives personally admitted to 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 and to drop similar charges against Ives' wife, Dolly, 49.
On Monday defense attorneys stressed the enormous support Ives had received in more than 250 letters to the court.
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.
They depicted him as charitable, devoutly religious and a good father and husband.
Former top immigration officials and labor farm labor organizers submitted letters to the judge, saying Ives was concerned about his employees and helped dozens of them become legal residents.
"There was not a farmer in the Southern California area more committed than Ed Ives in obtaining amnesty for his workers," Talcott told Marshall. "I don't believe that Ed Ives tried to live a life of Jekyll and Hyde."
But Gillam said Ives lived two lives, one as an upstanding member of his Los Angeles community and one as a ranch owner of enormous greed.
"Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde analogy is fairly apt," she said. "That is part of the essential hypocrisy of Ed Ives, that he could have these two lives."
In her closing comments, Marshall noted the conflicting arguments: "It is difficult to believe they are talking about the same case," she said.
Also in the courtroom Monday were workers who supported and criticized Ives.
Ramon Jimenez, 58, said he had worked for Ives for 10 years and that he was a good employer who cared about his workers.
"Mr. Ives doesn't deserve jail time," Jimenez said. "From what I saw, he didn't do anything wrong."
But Juan Mendez Cruz, who also worked on the Somis ranch and joined a lawsuit against Ives, said that he was satisfied with what happened in the case.
"For us it is a great example for all our companeros that work here in this country," he said. "We didn't do it for the money. We did it to defend our dignity."