Two brothers accused of smuggling undocumented immigrants appeared in federal court Tuesday and were released on bond pending a criminal trial.
Jose Alfredo Lopez Ponce and Juan Antonio Lopez Ponce, who operated J&A Framers & Carpentry, had been indicted Dec. 15 on charges including smuggling, harboring and recruiting immigrants to work at their Durham-based business.
Magistrate Judge William A. Webb released the Lopezes on $200,000 bond each and on the condition that they can’t leave Durham County without prior authorization from their parole officer.
A date has not been set for their trial, but the hearing laid out the preliminary evidence for the federal criminal charges.
As the Indy has reported over the last several weeks, since January 2005, the Lopez brothers allegedly hired smugglers, known as coyotes, to bring undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to work for the business. The employers also allegedly failed to pay employment taxes while paying the immigrants less than minimum wage.
“Ninety percent of the framers employed were illegal aliens,” Federal Prosecutor Dennis Duffy told the court, “and the brothers did profit from their labor without paying employment taxes.”
In addition, the Lopez brothers allegedly charged the workers to live in dilapidated trailers in Eastern Durham County. Those living conditions are starkly different from those of the brothers, who, according to Prosecutor Duffy, own $2.3 million in combined assets, including two homes valued at more than $500,000.
If convicted, the Lopez brothers could forfeit all of their property to the federal government. Federal prosecutors also could file tax fraud and money laundering charges. Duffy said the brothers not only neglected to pay employment taxes but also submitted hundreds of fraudulent 1099 tax forms.
Each man also faces a maximum sentence of 10 years on three of the smuggling counts, plus a $250,000 fine, and on the fourth count of smuggling, a six-month maximum sentence plus an additional $3,000 for each undocumented immigrant employed.
The situation emerged a month ago after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided three work sites in Cary, Apex and Chapel Hill and arrested 18 workers. Eight of those arrested pleaded guilty to misdemeanor immigration-related charges and served 30 days in the detention center, while 10 men await their indictments and court hearings.
As part of the ongoing investigation, Duffy said records seized by ICE indicate two wire transfers of $18,000 from the Lopezes to smugglers in Arizona. Ledgers allegedly show that when the crew chiefs went through the payroll, they deducted $100 from the workers’ pay, indicated by the notation “coyote.”
Federal investigators say they found hundreds of immigrant workers’ names but could identify only 32 of them. After background checks were run on those individuals, three were found to have criminal records, including assault on a female and drug charges, Duffy said.
The Lopez brothers entered the U.S. illegally in the 1980s, according to the U.S. attorney, but married American citizens, obtained green cards and have been naturalized citizens since 2006.
The attorneys for the Lopez brothers declined to comment, as did Duffy. However, attorney George Currin told the court that the workers “were gainfully employed to frame and build houses and they were not here to commit crimes.”
Judge Webb replied, “I happen to believe that if you bring people illegally into the U.S. than you are culpable for the crimes they commit.”
After some sharp words to the developer from Durham City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, the council voted 7-0 Tuesday to delay a decision on whether to extend water and sewer services to the controversial, proposed 751 South development until a city report on the financial impact is complete.
The council had been expected to put the water and sewer service agreement on the agenda for its Jan. 3 meeting and possibly vote on it. There is now no concrete timeline for when the item will come back before the board.
Catotti and fellow council members Mike Woodard and Cora Cole-McFadden went further in their request for a delay, saying they didn't feel the city should even begin considering plans for 751 South until courts resolve a pending lawsuit against Durham County regarding the same development. Some of their comments echoed the arguments of dozens of e-mails sent by opponents of the project to public officials in mid-December.
If approved, 751 South would include 1,300 homes, plus offices and retail space on land in the environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake watershed in South Durham. In August, the County Commissioners approved a rezoning of the land, which would allow the development to move forward. Now it’s the City Council’s turn to grapple with the issue.
"We all know it’s a very sensitive case and it just feels like bad form," Catotti said. "It just looks like if we proceed, that we’re disregarding the public process, and I really feel like citizens deserve their day in court ... Let them have their day in court and then we proceed after that."
Not all council members supported this view. But others, including Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Farad Ali, said they wanted to first consider the pending city report, which calculates the costs the city would bear for fire, police and other services if the land is drawn into city limits.
A draft of that report is expected to be complete in the first week of January, City Manager Tom Bonfield told the council. Once the report is complete, the staff will bring the information to the council, which would decide the next steps, including whether to grant water and sewer service, annex the land and decide how it should be zoned, Bonfield said.
Representatives for Southern Durham Development, the company behind the project, voiced frustration over continued delays and the $2,000-a-day carrying costs for the $18 million the company borrowed almost three years ago to buy the 167 acres of land near Jordan Lake.
"Any delay is very difficult for our clients," said K&L Gates attorney Patrick Byker, one of several representing the developer. "It’s a staggering loan that’s personally guaranteed by the shareholders of Southern Durham Development."
Between the short video produced by 751 South opponent Tina Motley-Pearson and friends, and a resolution issued today by the Durham People's Alliance, critics of the controversial development planned for South Durham have once again mobilized quickly to block the project's progress.
Opponents are hoping to get the Durham City Council to reject, or at least delay, voting on an agreement that would extend water, sewer and stormwater services to the 167-acre mixed-use development planned in South Durham. The council is scheduled to discuss the agreement at its work session Tuesday and vote on the matter Jan. 3. No public hearing is required for the council to approve the agreement.
Critics of the project have said they believed the developer and/or its attorneys have been pressuring the city to move forward with the water and sewer agreement, which resulted in its being scheduled for the Dec. 21 work session and the Jan. 3 regular meeting for a vote—times when citizens are out of town for the holidays and might not have the chance to participate in any discussion.
But both City Manager Tom Bonfield and Councilman Eugene Brown said the process is following a timeline that was established by the project's managers in the city's budget office, and that the timeline was not hastened as a result of pressure from the developer or its attorneys.
Both Brown and Councilman Farad Ali confirmed that they had received phone calls from an attorneys with K&L Gates, the law firm representing Southern Durham Development. Ali said he didn't recall which attorney from the firm K&L Gates called him, or specifically what the lawyer asked for, but that he referred the attorney to the city's administration.
"What they asked was irrelevant to me, because I wasn't going to entertain the question," Ali said.
Brown said he received a phone call late last month from attorney Patrick Byker, who has been the lead attorney on the case, though several from the firm have participated in the project.
"He encouraged me to try to get the manager to move this process faster," Brown said, adding that Byker was just doing his job to lobby for his client, who is mounting carrying costs to the tune of $2,000 a day. Brown said he looked at the calendar set out by the project's managers, but he thought the timeline was fair and saw no reason to honor Byker's plea. (Neither Byker nor Alex Mitchell, president of Southern Durham Development, responded to e-mails requesting interviews about the water and sewer agreement.)
"I think there might be an alarmist tone," Brown said of the citizen concerns flooding his e-mail inbox. "I received a letter with everything stated with the proposed dates for this issue. Nothing is being swept under the rug. It will all be open to the public."
Both Bonfield and Brown also addressed citizen concerns on how the water and sewer agreement might affect a lawsuit that some 751 South opponents have filed asking a judge to evaluate the county's recent rezoning of the land.
UPDATE, 12/19 6 p.m.: Opponents to the project have put together a video encouraging the public to ask the city council for a delay in deciding the water and sewer agreement.
The agenda hasn't been posted, but word has gotten around town that on Jan. 3, the Durham City Council will be considering a water and sewer agreement for 751 South, the controversial mixed-use community of homes, shops and offices proposed for southwest Durham.
Councilwoman Diane Catotti confirmed that the item is now slated for the Council's Jan. 3 meeting, and that the matter will be discussed Tuesday at the council's work session.
Southern Durham Development has applied to the city for water and sewer service to a portion of the 167-acre swath of land that is now largely vacant. The developer has also requested that the city annex the acreage and maintain the zoning it recently won from Durham county commissioners to build the large community. The annexation and zoning public hearing will be scheduled for a later date.
It appeared that an appeal opponents had filed with Durham's Board of Adjustment challenging the legality of the commissioners' rezoning decision had delayed the development from moving forward with the city development process. But late last month, the citizens suing the county and its board of commissioners withdrew their appeal from the Durham Board of Adjustment and agreed to submit the case to Durham Superior Court.
The Superior Court case has faced several recent delays. County Attorney Lowell Siler filed a motion for an extension until Dec. 13, saying his office was under staffed and needed more time to respond. Siler has also since been out of the office dealing with the grave illness of his mother.
It was unclear how the city is able to move forward with water and sewer extension while the Superior Court case is still pending—a question better saved for a weekday when city officials are in their offices. But as with many of the processes surrounding this controversial land use case, several opponents of the project are questioning the sudden rush to bring the item before Council during the holidays.
Two brothers who operated the J&A Framing and Carpentry have been indicted on several charges, including trafficking immigrants whom they employed at the Durham-based business.
A grand jury yesterday indicted Juan Antonio Ponce and Jose Alfredo Lopez Ponce, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorneys office in Raleigh. The Ponce brothers allegedly hired coyotes, or smugglers, to bring undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to work for the business. The employers also allegedly failed to pay employment taxes while paying the immigrants less than minimum wage. In addition, the Ponce brothers charged the workers rent for spartan accommodations.
A month ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided three work sites in Cary, Apex and Chapel Hill and arrested 18 workers. Eight of those arrested pleaded guilty to misdemeanor immigration-related charges and served 30 days in the detention center, while 10 men await their indictments and court hearings.
The Lopez brothers entered the U.S. illegally in the 1980s, according to the U.S. Attorney, but have married U.S. citizens and become naturalized.
This story will updated as more information becomes available.
This time, it took less than 10 minutes.
After a three-hour stalemate last week, Durham's county commissioners continued their election for the board's chair and vice chair positions at the beginning of their meeting Monday night.
In a quick vote, commissioners Michael Page, Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron voted as a majority to keep Page as the board's chairman and Reckhow as the board's vice chair.
Commissioners Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton paired their votes in an attempt to get Bowser into the chairmanship and Howerton named as vice chair. But their two votes were not enough.
Last week, Page was out of town on vacation and the board couldn't move past a two-two tie. Howerton and Bowser were hoping to elect Howerton as the board's vice chair, and Reckhow and Heron were trying to push the matter to the Dec. 13 meeting, when all five board members would be present.
N.C. Rep. Bill Faison of Orange and Caswell Counties announced today that he will seek the N.C. Democratic Party chairman’s post.
“At stake is a better education for our children, a fairer society and a better life for all of our concerns, not just a select few,” Faison said in a press release. “We must take back the Legislature and keep a Democratic Governor in 2012. Failure would be devastating to our state for decades to come.”
Current chairman David Young announced in late November that he wouldn’t seek re-election when the party convenes in January to tap leaders. He served one two-year term. Faison, a medical malpractice attorney, was re-elected to the General Assembly in November, winning for a fourth time.
RALEIGH— Neighbors peppered Hanson Aggregates Southeast officials with questions Tuesday night at an information session on the company’s plans to expand its Crabtree Quarry operation.
The crowd packed the Glen Eden Community Center parking lot and overflowed from the room with brooms being used to prop open back and side doors to get a view of Hanson’s presentation.
Residents worried about the noise, the vibrations, the view and their property value. They reminded Hanson that the their current quarry, which was built in the 1940s, is now surrounded by neighborhoods.
“The amount of activity for the quarry area does not change by the quarry size,” Styers explained. “It’s a function of demand.”
Blasts now occur once every two weeks. The current quarry, located between Duraleigh and Ebenezer Church roads has two decades of life remaining, Hanson officials estimate.
The group has the option to purchase 100 acres of property once slated for the Hamptons at Umstead Development. The move, if the City of Raleigh approves a rezoning request, would occur in about three years, General Manager Chris Ward said.
In these audio excerpts, Edwards discusses how her experiences from childhood—at the U.S. Army's Camp Zama in Japan—and early adulthood shaped her political attitudes toward war and women's equality.
Barry Yeoman, the Independent's former senior staff writer, interviewed Elizabeth Edwards twice in April 2007 for a profile that was published in O, The Oprah Magazine. (The article can be read at barryyeoman.com/articles/elizabethedwards.html.) The conversations took place at Edwards' dining room table in Orange County. Campaign workers and a moving crew scurried in the background.
The photos were taken over several years by Indy contributing photographer Jenny Warburg.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners tapped Bernadette Pelissier as chairwoman and Steve Yuhasz as vice chairman Tuesday night. The group also welcomed Earl McKee to the board.
McKee fills the place held by Mike Nelson, who did not seek a second term in office. He had served as the board’s vice chairman.
Former Chairwoman Valerie Foushee remains on the board.
Along with McKee, incumbents Barry Jacobs and Alice Gordon were sworn in for another four-year term.