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 raids on 11 Chuy's restaurants in Arizona and four in California, are part of a stepped-up federal immigration enforcement aimed at companies that hire illegal workers.
The raids also netted 41 workers on suspected immigration violations. Some will be placed in removal proceedings for deportation, while others will remain as material witnesses, Vincent Picard, ICE spokesman for Arizona said.
"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," U.S. 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."
Under President Barack Obama, immigration enforcement strategy has shifted to finding evidence to bring criminal charges or fines against employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE in Southern California, said the charges against the owners and accountant at Chuy's were among the toughest yet brought against executives in a work site enforcement operation.
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.
The indictment comes as U.S. prosecutors joined a widening probe at upscale burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, which fired hundreds of employees in Minnesota following an investigation into its hiring practices.
The criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. has requested documents related to ICE audits conducted at the firm, Monty Moran, co-chief executive of the burrito chain, told a conference call.
The investigation at Chipotle served as a wake-up call to the restaurant industry, which relies on immigrant labor for around one-quarter of its work force.
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)