Utah A.G. investigator lied about labor trafficking allegations, landscaping company says

Defendants, who are facing multiple felony trafficking charges, want the search warrants tossed out and their seized records and assets returned.

(Fox 13 News) Agents with the Utah attorney general's office investigate at the corporate offices of Utah landscaping company Rubicon Contractors LLC, which they say trafficked Mexican laborers in an "appalling" case, in this screenshot of Fox 13 News coverage. The Salt Lake Tribune and Fox 13 News are content-sharing partners.

Attorneys for a Utah landscaping company accused of exploiting and trafficking workers say the state investigator on the case lied to a judge to get a series of search warrants and to justify multiple felony charges against company executives.

Last November, the Utah attorney general’s office arrested executives with Rubicon Contractors LLC, a landscaping and snow removal company in West Bountiful, and accused the company — among other things — of keeping more than 150 Mexican workers in “appalling” conditions, withholding their immigration documents, threatening them with deportation and keeping money they had earned.

Rubicon executives Rudy Larsen, Jena Marie Larsen and Clayton Phillips were charged with seven felony counts of human trafficking. Rudy Larsen was also charged with money laundering and a pattern of unlawful conduct. Attorney General Sean Reyes said the workers were “exploited in subhuman living and working conditions as indentured servants” and that the arrests prove “how broadly this type of crime plagues Utah.”

But in a court filing Wednesday, defense attorneys accuse the state’s lead investigator, Special Agent Michael Jeter of the attorney general’s SECURE [statewide enforcement of crimes by undocumented residents] Strike Force, of making false claims under oath to multiple magistrates in order to obtain a series of 10 warrants to seize business and personal records and assets of the company and the executives.

The statements Jeter made, the defense contends, are contradicted by recordings and transcripts of his interviews with seven employees that were provided to the defense by prosecutors.

“The discovery provided by the state, which Agent Jeter had before swearing to the affidavits, demonstrates that these claims in the affidavits are false,” Wednesday’s filing states. Jeter should have known it was untrue because “he was the person gathering the evidence and conducting the interviews that demonstrably contradict the claims he later makes in the affidavits.”

The Attorney General’s office defended its investigator. “Our investigators are among the best in the state and we are confident in their integrity and professionalism,” spokesperson Alex Curcio said. “Our response will be filed in the 2nd District Court.”

An example that the defense team points to is the sworn statement Jeter made that all of the victims in the case claimed that Rubicon had withheld immigration documents in order to keep the workers from traveling back and forth to Mexico. But none of them claimed their documents were withheld in the interviews, the defense attorneys argue.

“The alleged victims did not even tell Agent Jeter that the company had withheld visa documents, and for good reason: because there is no evidence that Rubicon actually withheld H2B workers’ documents,” the motion states, and “there is ample evidence of the opposite.”

Actually, the motion contends, Jeter had taken photos of the paperwork some of the employees had with them during the interviews. Wednesday’s motion also denies that employees were threatened, insists they were given a choice of whether to live in the company’s housing and contends that workers retained access to the money they had earned even after they left their jobs.

Despite those points being clear from the interviews, the attorneys argue, Jeter misrepresented the facts to the magistrates who granted the warrants.

They are asking the judge to void the warrants, prevent the records gathered from being used as evidence in the case and to return the business and personal assets of those involved.

Utah alleges ‘appalling’ treatment of workers

The attorney general’s office started investigating Rubicon last May after they received a tip from a national human trafficking hotline. In an early interview — detailed in charging documents the defense attorneys now dispute — an alleged victim told investigators that he’d lived in Mexico and was recruited to work at Rubicon through a visa program and promised 40 hours of work a week for $20.13 per hour.

But when he started working for Rubicon, the man said he did not work 40 hours a week and that “deductions were regularly made from his pay” for things like a cellphone he had to buy in order to log his hours.

After four months of work, the man said he’d only been paid $1,400 and was “relying on churches and foodbanks to obtain food and basic necessities.”

In at least six similar interviews, according to charging documents, men gave similar accounts of their employment. Most described living in smelly, cramped quarters with multiple roommates and not having a bed to sleep in. All seven said they were effectively forced to live in the company’s housing.

The defense motion filed Wednesday cites a witness statement Jeter had that said the employees could arrange their own apartment, but many opted for the company housing so they did not have to find their own transportation.

The charges state that the men were ill-prepared for their jobs, not knowing how to operate the snow plows and other machinery, and that the company deducted money from paychecks for “normal wear and tear on equipment.”

One employee told investigators about a man who drove a company truck on Interstate 15 from Bountiful to Spanish Fork and “never left the righthand lane,” taking every exit ramp and on-ramp the entire drive because he wasn’t properly trained in U.S. traffic laws or how to drive the truck, investigators wrote.

In the interviews, the men told investigators they felt compelled to work long hours, show up when they were sick, weren’t given adequate bathroom breaks, sometimes shoveled snow in tennis shoes and were told to sleep in their trucks so they could respond quickly to calls.

One man showed investigators that he’d worked 24 hours with only an hour break. All seven men described threats of deportation if they didn’t work, did poor work, complained, sought work elsewhere or quit.

The defense motion insists there were no threats of deportation, but the company was legally required to notify the U.S. Department of Labor if a guest worker left the job. Those who wanted to leave, the motion states, were offered a plane ticket home.

In addition to the Larsens and Phillips, charges were also filed against company employees Tyler Brinkman, Adam Perea, Brandon Floyd and Kirk Simmons. All of the defendants are scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on May 20, according to court records.