KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Federal prosecutors in Missouri have charged 19 restaurant owners and managers -- most living in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma -- accusing them of a racketeering scheme to hire and employ people who are living illegally in the U.S.
The indictments unsealed Wednesday charge the defendants with counts ranging from fraud and conspiracy to money laundering and illegal use of Social Security numbers. They were unsealed as federal Homeland Security agents carried out search warrants at 10 locations in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Fourteen of the 19 people indicted were arrested.
The case involves 45 Mexican restaurants across several states that received employment services from Specialty Foods Distribution, based in Joplin, and another affiliate. Prosecutors allege that over the course of nearly 20 years, the company helped staff the restaurants with people not eligible to work in the U.S.
The indictment names Jose Louis Bravo of Claremore, Okla., and owner of Specialty Foods Distribution, as the leader of the operation. Attempts to reach Bravo through the company Thursday morning were unsuccessful, and a message for Bravo could not be left with the company's voicemail system.
The investigation was launched after a Kansas Department of Labor inquiry into employment practices at Bravos Mexican Grill in Overland Park, Kan., according to prosecutors.
Bravo is accused along with others of providing fake documents for employees and sending that information to state and federal agencies. Prosecutors say he also helped arrange the smuggling of foreigners across the U.S. border to work in the restaurants.