PHOENIX (Reuters) - The United States' largest year-round grower of greenhouse tomatoes has pleaded guilty to knowingly hiring undocumented workers in Arizona and been fined $600,000, authorities said on Friday.
Eurofresh Inc, which grows hydroponic tomatoes at facilities in Willcox and Snowflake, Arizona, will also be required to remain on probation for five years, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona said.
The plea followed an investigation carried out in tandem with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which are cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"This judgment is a message to other employers who engage in illegal practices that there is a real cost to their actions," U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke said in a statement.
"We will continue to work with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security to ensure our nation's laws are followed," he added.
Eurofresh Farms says it is the leading year-round producer and marketer of greenhouse tomatoes in the United States, with more than 1,100 employees in southern Arizona, where the firm's two greenhouse facilities cover 318 acres.
The plea stated that from August 2000 through December 2006, Eurofresh hired and continued to employ at least 17 supervisory level employees despite the human resources director's knowledge they were not authorized to work in the United States.
The plea agreement noted that Eurofresh received $600,000 as direct proceeds from hiring the undocumented workers.
In a statement, Eurofresh said that a former human resources director at the company is currently awaiting sentencing by the U.S. District Court for allegedly allowing illegal immigrants to work at the facilities for short periods of time.
It said that upon discovering the wrongful hiring practices, the firm terminated the director and "self-reported the infraction to the U.S. Department of Justice."
"Eurofresh does not tolerate illegal activities and regrets that a former employee engaged in illegal conduct more than five years ago," Johan van den Berg, chief executive officer of Eurofresh Farms said in a statement.
"When Eurofresh discovered the activities, the company voluntarily reported the infraction to authorities, terminated the employee, and acted swiftly to implement new procedures that ensure full compliance with immigration laws."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton)