By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The owners of a regional Mexican restaurant chain have been indicted on immigration and tax evasion charges as part of a broader crackdown on employers hiring illegal immigrants, federal officials said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, said the father-and-son owners of Chuy's Mesquite Broiler restaurants, with outlets in Arizona and California, would be arraigned in federal court in Tucson on Thursday.
Mark Evenson, 58, his son, Christopher, 39, along with their accountant, Diane Strehlow, 47, face a total of 19 counts of such offenses as unlawful hiring and harboring of illegal aliens, conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and tax evasion.
Wednesday's arrest of the three defendants after a series of raids on Chuy's restaurants in California and Arizona are part of a stepped-up federal immigration enforcement aimed at companies that hire illegal workers.
"For nearly two years, these defendants are alleged to have knowingly dodged hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes in order to maintain an illegal work force," Attorney Dennis Burke said in a statement. "There should be no place in our economy for employers who cynically exploit and defy the U.S. tax code to take advantage of illegal labor."
The indictment said the Evensons knowingly employed undocumented workers in the kitchens of their restaurants, while individuals authorized to work in the United States were hired in more conspicuous jobs such as servers.
The defendants are alleged to have then paid the illegal workers under the table, with no payroll taxes withheld or reported to the IRS.
If convicted of all the charges, Mark Evenson faces up to 86 years in prison and a $5.33 million fine; his son faces up to 81 years in prison and a $5.08 million fine; and, Strehlow faces a maximum prison term of 40 years and a $2 million fine.
Last year, work-site immigration cases initiated by ICE resulted in criminal charges being brought against a record 180 owners, employers, managers and supervisors -- up from 135 in fiscal year 2008, the statement said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)