Minn. farmer admits to exploiting seasonal workers

A Minnesota farmer admitted Thursday to exploiting his seasonal workers. John Svihel, owner and operator of Svihel Farm in Foley, took kickbacks from his H-2A visa workers, according to a plea agreement. Two co-defendants face a trial in August.

The plea deal follows an extensive investigation by U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, and HSI's Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force.

Svihel required his Dominican Republic workers to pay a cash kickback for each hour worked, amounting to about $2,209 per worker. He also required a kickback for airfare. The kickbacks totaled $198,697, and occurred from 2011 to 2013, according to the plea agreement.

As part of the plea deal, Svihel established a large escrow account for restitution, agreed to a monitor system for future use of H2-A workers, and is cooperating with the investigation of two co-defendants. In exchange for the plea, federal prosecutors dropped all but one charge.

“He knew what he was doing was wrong, he has taken responsibility for it, and he is making extremely strong efforts to make this situation right,” Susan Gaertner, the attorney for Svihel, told Fox 9.

Svihel’s co-defendants, Wilian Cabrera and Sandra Bart, have trials scheduled for August 1. Investigators believe the pair recruited the workers from the Dominican Republic and also took kickbacks, but had a deeper and larger role than Svihel.

“John Svihel has taken responsibility for some things he knows he should not have done, and he is assisting the government. Very cooperative with the government in their effort to convict the two ringleaders,” Gaertner said.

Svihel’s attorney told Fox 9 her client has been “following the law to the letter” since the investigation began.

Svihel faces up to five years in prison.