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Judge Lois Conroy, Fred Bruno, Ricardo Ernesto Batres
Judge Lois Conroy, Fred Bruno, Ricardo Ernesto Batres

Batres sentenced to 270 days in workhouse

Ricardo Ernesto Batres, a businessman accused of exploiting local construction workers, got an earful from victims Wednesday morning before a Hennepin County judge sentenced the convicted labor trafficker to 270 days in the county workhouse and five years’ probation.

Batres, who pleaded guilty in November to labor trafficking and insurance fraud just before his case was set to go to trial, stared at a table and folded his hands at his waist as Judge Lois Conroy handed down the sentence and ordered him to report to the adult correctional facility by 9 a.m. Thursday. The judge said he would need to serve at least 120 days before being eligible for electronic monitoring or work release.

The sentence includes financial restitution to be determined at a later date. Also, the court ordered Batres to avoid direct or indirect contact with his victims, and barred him any state or federal contracts.

Batres, 47, told the court through an interpreter that he “committed terrible mistakes” and is “extremely regretful.” His company, American Contractors and Associates, performed work on jobsites in the Twin Cities.

“I have caused damage to the system, to the state, my Hispanic brothers, and my family. I take full responsibility. I will serve my sentence successfully and honorably,” Batres said in a statement.

At the sentencing hearing, prosecutors read statements from victims who accused Batres of withholding proper medical treatment for injured workers, subjecting workers to unsafe conditions, forcing them to work excessive hours, withholding pay, and causing mental anguish.

One victim, identified only as LLG, said in a statement read in court that Batres required him to work from heights without proper safety equipment, and that the defendant’s actions caused him to experience stress and loss of appetite.

“He treats people worse than animals,” the victim said. “He does not have a conscience.”

Another victim, identified as JZL, said he injured two vertebrae as a result of an accident while working for Batres, and that Batres “wanted to avoid having me go to the hospital by giving false information” about the accident.

A victim identified as YIB said he injured his back while working for Batres and that he now suffers chronic back pain and has trouble sleeping. In addition, the victim said he wasn’t paid for all the hours he worked.

“I did not anticipate this experience in Minnesota,” he said. “I have never had stress like this before in my life.”

The victim said he wanted to attend school here, but now he feels like “that is impossible because of the trauma.”

“Mr. Batres is not a good person,” he told the court in the statement. “He is a person who manipulates, controls and hurts you, yet he pretends to be a good person. He is a wolf dressed like a sheep.”

Batres’ attorney, Fred Bruno, acknowledged that his client made mistakes, but he dismissed much of the victims’ testimony as “irrelevant and ill-spirited chatter” and “mendacious statements” from “disgruntled workers.”

Bruno suggested to the court that the workers were motivated to “snitch” and “tell lies” about their employer in hopes of getting “favorable immigration status” from the U.S. government.

For his part, Batres came to the U.S. in 1991 as a refugee, fleeing civil war in El Salvador, Bruno said. In Minnesota, Batres initially worked as a landscaper for $4.05 per hour before eventually starting his own business.

“That business was the beginning of Mr. Batres’ trouble,” Bruno said.

The defense attorney added that Batres paid his workers $23 to $24 per hour, which is “well above the minimum wage in the state of Minnesota.”

“Yes, my client made a mistake. But these people were adequately — more than adequately — compensated for what they were doing,” Bruno said.

Morgan Kunz, an assistant Hennepin County attorney, told the court that the case is about taking advantage of vulnerable workers who “have not been educated on their rights and on the laws of the American justice system.”

“The defendant took advantage of those workers for his own benefit,” Kunz said. “He designed a business scheme where he made profit at the expense of his workers. He made knowing false statements to obtain the licenses and insurances that he needed to operate his construction business. He knew what he was doing was wrong, because as his workers were injured, he denied them medical access and he took other actions to cover up his crimes.”

The sentence concludes a case that raised awareness of worker exploitation on Twin Cities construction sites. Minnesota’s Commerce Department said it was one of the first cases of its kind in Minnesota.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced the charges in fall 2018. The charges stem from information reported by labor unions, the Center for Workers United in Struggle (CTUL), and The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.

“This is a historic sentencing as it is the first guilty verdict of labor trafficking in Hennepin County,” said CTUL, a worker advocacy group.

Brian Merle Payne, co-director of CTUL, said he would have liked to see a longer sentence.

Still, it’s “good there was a guilty finding on labor trafficking,” he said. “It helps set a precedent for a lot of similar cases we’re currently looking into in the industry and helps send a message to the industry.”

In the criminal complaint from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, prosecutors alleged that Batres failed to purchase workers’ compensation insurance and “told his employees they would lose their job and be deported if they went to a doctor for injuries suffered on the job.”

Batres’ workers put in 10 to 12 hours daily six days a week without being paid overtime and were “often working as high as six stories above ground without proper safety equipment,” according to the complaint.

The insurance fraud charge relates to a November 2017 incident. One of Batres’ workers was seriously injured when a prefabricated wall fell on him, according to the complaint.

In the complaint, prosecutors said Batres told hospital staff that the accident “occurred at Batres’ house, rather than at a job site, because [Batres] knew he did not have workers’ compensation insurance.”

“As a result the injured man’s care was paid for by taxpayers and charities. More than $31,000 was covered by Medicaid, more than $10,000 by Minnesota Care and an additional $4,200 was paid by Hennepin County Charity Care program,” the complaint continued.

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