(LifeZette) The tree-trimming company Asplundh has been hit with a $95 million fine for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and for hiring some under different names who used documents that it knew were fraudulent.

Asplundh photo

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It is the largest fine ever in an immigration case in the U.S.

Asplundh pleaded guilty to criminal charges in federal court in Pennsylvania, where it is headquartered, admitting that its managers restructured the company’s hiring specifically to evade normal human resources processes and hire illegal aliens, many by word of mouth, while giving top-level managers deniability.

The $95 million fine includes forfeiture of up to $80 million in profits that the company earned as a result of its hiring of illegal aliens and a civil fine of $15 million.

The federal lawsuit brought against the company by the Department of Justice named manager Larry Gauger as plaintiff in addition to the company, saying he instructed managers working under him to hire people they knew were illegal aliens.

But what made things worse, and the fine no doubt much larger, was that the company, and Gauger, set up a system to hire illegal aliens after a government audit and in outright defiance of the government.

PREVIOUSLY: DOJ Sues Company for Hiring Foreign Workers Instead of Americans

A Department of Homeland Security audit of the company that began in 2009 found that many employees of the company were illegal aliens.

“The results of these audits and the names of these employees who were determined to be ineligible to work in the United States were communicated to Asplundh,” court documents say.

The company dismissed a number of employees who had been identified as being illegal, and others resigned before a final determination had been made about their eligibility to work in the U.S. About 100 of those dismissed had been working in southeastern Pennsylvania, an area managed by Gauger.

In the years following the DHS audit, Gauger, according to the Department of Justice, instructed managers working under him to accept identification documents that were known to be false, including legal permanent resident cards and Social Security cards, telling them they would have “plausible deniability” because the Social Security numbers would be positive matches in the E-Verify database, even though they didn’t match the names.

The court documents list several examples where the same people who had been dismissed after the DHS audit were re-hired, but using different names. A former employee named “Danny Palao” was rehired as “Jose Feliciano” in October of 2012. An employee named “Fernando Bautista” was rehired in April 2014 as “Jorge Rivera Rivera” and a “Jean Carlos Vega Ortiz” was rehired the same month as “Rene Gutierrez.”

In its charging documents, the government alleged that Asplundh decentralized its hiring so that the highest-level managers could “remain willfully blind” while supervisors and general foremen (2nd and 3rd level supervisors) hired ineligible workers, including illegal aliens, in the field.

“Hiring was by word of mouth referrals rather than through any systematic application process. This manner of hiring enabled supervisors and general foremen to hire a work force that was readily available and at their disposal,” ICE said in a press release.

“Today marks the end of a lengthy investigation by ICE Homeland Security Investigations into hiring violations committed by the highest levels of Aplundh’s organization,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan in a statement. “Today’s judgement sends a strong, clear message to employers who scheme to hire and retain a workforce of illegal immigrants: We will find you and hold you accountable.”

The charges brought against Asplundh were for violations of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1982 but also made it a crime to knowingly hire an “unauthorized alien.” Regulations issued pursuant to the law required employers to use the I-9 form to verify the eligibility of all new employees to work in the U.S.

Asplundh Tree Experts is a 90-year-old company based in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, that contracts with utility companies, railroads and municipalities to clear trees and brush near power lines. The company had $3.9 billion in revenue in 2016, according to Forbes, an 11 percent increase over 2015.

The chairman and CEO of the company, Scott Asplundh, said in a written statement last week: “We accept responsibility for the charges as outlined, and we apologize to our customers, associates and all other stakeholders for what has occurred.” He added that the company is taking corrective action including using face-recognition software to confirm the identities of new hires and will also submit its compliance program to ICE for review.

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