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CALIFORNIA

2 Charged in Garment Industry Extortion Plot

April 30, 1999|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former state labor inspector was arrested Thursday on federal charges of shaking down Korean sewing contractors in Los Angeles' Garment District.

Howard Hernandez, 48, was accused of extorting payoffs from the contractors in return for dismissing or reducing fines, alerting them to surprise inspections and for ignoring abuses ranging from workplace safety to child labor violations.

Some operators were coerced into paying monthly protection fees to avoid being cited for bogus labor code offenses, prosecutors said.

Charged with Hernandez was his admitted bagman, Edwin Kim, 43, a garment maker who started out as one of Hernandez's victims and then joined him in the shakedown scheme, according to prosecutors.

At a news conference announcing the arrests, U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas said Hernandez and Kim extorted more than $65,000 over a six-year period from business owners in a "highly vulnerable immigrant community."

South Koreans are a major force in the city's garment industry. The Korean-American Garment Industry Assn. numbers more than 800 member firms.

While Mayorkas expressed sympathy for those who fell prey to Hernandez's alleged extortion racket, the federal prosecutor said he also wanted to send a message that paying bribes is also a crime.

Five Korean contractors accused of making payoffs to Hernandez were charged with bribery. Mayorkas said the five have agreed to cooperate in the case against the former labor inspector.

Hernandez of Montebello was named in an eight-count federal grand jury indictment that accuses him of extortion and conspiracy from 1989 to 1997 while he was a member of an elite enforcement unit that targeted the garment industry.

He was arrested in September 1997, in a sting operation carried out by investigators from the state attorney general's office. They acted on a complaint from a garment shop owner who said he was threatened with being put out of business unless he paid $8,000 in extortion money. The businessman's only offense was failing to report a change of address, a minor violation with a $400 fine.

When the shop owner met Kim in the parking lot of a Koreatown restaurant and made the payoff, state investigators arrested Kim, who implicated Hernandez and agreed to cooperate. Hernandez, a 17-year veteran of the agency, was arrested a few hours later when he accepted the payoff money from Kim in Montebello, according to state investigators.

Placed on leave from his nearly $50,000-a-year job, Hernandez resigned three months later after being ordered to appear for a disciplinary hearing at the state labor commissioner's office.

Hernandez was freed on $20,000 bail Thursday after appearing before a federal magistrate. He will be arraigned on the felony indictment next week.

Phone calls to Hernandez's home and attorney's office were not returned.

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