Contractor gets 9 months in Hennepin Co. labor trafficking case

A Twin Cities contractor was sentenced Wednesday to nine months in jail and five years’ probation after pleading guilty to labor trafficking and insurance fraud charges.

Ricardo Batres, 47, admitted he took advantage of employees’ federal immigration status to force them to work for him. He said during his sentencing in Hennepin County District Court that he "committed terrible mistakes'' and “regretted” his actions. He was also barred from any state or federal work contracts.

“I take full responsibility,’’ said Batres, who kept his hands folded and his head hung during the more than one-hour long sentencing. “I will serve the sentence honorably.’’

Batres’ case was being closely watched by immigration advocates and others as it marked the first time Hennepin County prosecutors used the state’s labor trafficking law to level criminal charges.

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“This case is about taking advantage of vulnerable people,” said Morgan Kunz, an assistant Hennepin County attorney. “The victims just wanted to make money to support not only themselves but also their families.

“He knew what he was doing was wrong,” Kunz said, adding that many of his employees thought they would be arrested and deported if they spoke out.

Four of Batres’ workers said in statements to the court Wednesday, read by victim advocates, that their former boss took advantage of their lack of understanding of employment and workers’ compensation laws to make them work unreasonable hours.

They said they believed Batres would retaliate against them and their families if they reported him, and that he sometimes threatened to kill them.

In one case, Batres bailed a worker out of immigration custody but told him he would need to pay off his $6,000 debt. He also lied on workers’ compensation insurance papers to save money.

“My family and I live in constant fear considering that Mr. Batres threatened to kill us if I reported him to authorities.” said the former worker identified in court by the initials J.Z.L.

That same worker said he suffered a spinal injury on the job that will affect him for the rest of his life. He said that Batres did not want him to go to the hospital to get treatment.

Another victim, identified as L.L.G., said he worked for Batres when he was sick, often worked until 7 p.m. and that he felt “anxious and stressful” while employed by him.

“He deceived people. He is an extreme liar … he is not a good person,” the former worker said through the advocate. “He has the power to make people suffer … He is capable of anything.”

The push by developers to build projects as quickly and cheaply as possible allows contractors like Batres to “firmly establish a culture of fear within the workforce by threatening workers and retaliating against workers who stand up for their rights,” the worker advocacy group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha said in a community impact statement during the sentencing.

“While Batres is not the only contractor behaving this way in the industry, he was a trailblazer in finding creative ways to cut costs on the backs of workers,” the group added.

Batres’ lawyer, Fred Bruno, painted his client as an uneducated refugee who fled civil war in El Salvador in 1991 and started working in landscaping for $3.25 an hour before building his own business. He no longer owns a business and has been working for one of his former employees.

Bruno said it is unlikely his client will ever own his own company again.

State and federal employment and worker’s compensation laws are complex and Batres’ crime was not understanding them, he added.

Under the terms of the agreement between Bruno and prosecutors, which Judge Lois Conroy accepted, Batres will need to serve a minimum of 120 days in jail before he is eligible for electronic home monitoring or work release.

She denied Bruno’s request to reduce Batres’ probation by 18 months. After he successfully completes probation, the felony charges will be reduced to misdemeanors, she ruled.

Prosecutors asked for Batres to pay more than $50,000 in restitution to the victims. Conroy said she will set the amount in 60 days.