Svihel Vegetable Farm used to open its gates from morning to dusk every day of the summer for strawberry picking. This unassuming family farm in Foley, Minnesota also sold cucumbers and melons, kale, zucchini, and peppers – “only the finest fruits and vegetables.”
Then the Labor Department got tipped off that owner John Svihel might have abused seasonal workers he’d hire from the Dominican Republic. In May 2015, federal investigators raided the farm for evidence that Svihel was forcing the workers to pay for their own housing and transportation to America in addition to “right to work” fees.
Under the United States’ temporary work visa program, all those things are illegal.
Throughout the course of the investigation, workers said that they would pay Svihel for their airfare as well as a portion of their own wages. Svihel considered the legal prevailing wage for guest workers too high, and ended up keeping a total of $90,000 that should have been paid to them, according to the feds. (He used it for travel and play.)
The workers also said they would pay a middleman recruiter, Wilian Cabrera, $420 to $2,385 in order to work, as well as an annual $374 rehiring fee from season to season. They said that Cabrera threatened to have “friends” break their necks if they reported anything amiss to the feds.
It was later proven at trial that Cabrera and a partner, Sandra Bart, pulled Svihel into the conspiracy to rip off international farm laborers. Cabrera and Bart ran a black market business called “Labor Listo,” which recruited Dominican workers and turned a profit on all the illegal fees they were charged.
A jury decided that once Bart discovered that a federal investigation of Svihel Farm was underway, she instructed Cabrera to get all the workers' signatures on a document retracting their statements. She and Svihel later huddled over a list of the workers, marking down whomever they believed to have snitched. Those who were blacklisted got fired and sent back to the Dominican Republic.
As of Monday, Svihel, Cabrera, and Bart have all been convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud in foreign labor contracting. Bart has additional convictions of conspiracy to commit false swearing in an immigration matter and conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud.