Thirty months after federal authorities rescued undocumented Ecuadorians who were allegedly working in slave-like conditions at a well-known Italian bakery, the storeowner entered a guilty plea in federal court.
Antonio “Tony” DiBenedetto, 64, of North Branford, waived his right to indictment and pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of unlawful employment of aliens. He entered the plea before Judge Mark R. Kravitz in U.S. District Court in New Haven, according to U.S. Attorney spokesman Tom Carson.
DiBenedetto owns Rocco’s Bakery, which has a storefront in New Haven and a warehouse in Meriden. From 2000 through May 2008, DiBenedetto employed at least 10 people at his bakeries “knowing that they were in the country unlawfully and were not authorized to work,” Carson wrote.
DiBenedetto faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 at his sentencing, which is set for April 14. Judge Kravitz may also order him to forfeit a monetary judgment, Carson wrote in a statement. The case was investigated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Office of Inspector General. Assistant United States Attorney Douglas P. Morabito is the prosecutor.
The guilty plea caps a two-and-a-half-year-long investigation into DiBenedetto’s treatment of his employees at the well-known mom-and-pop Italian pastry shop at 432 Ferry St., in what used to be the heart of the city’s Italian community, now populated heavily with Latinos.
In June 2008, ICE authorities swept into an apartment near the bakery and rescued six Ecuadorians who had been working for Rocco’s. Instead of deporting them, ICE helped them find a safe place to stay.
With the help of New Haven legal aid lawyers, the family filed a civil lawsuit in federal court seeking at least $38,000 in back wages and a restraining order against Tony DiBenedetto, his wife Anna, and their sons Ferdinando and Giovanni.
The workers claim the owners failed to pay them for forced overtime, kept them trapped in apartments above the bakery, regularly threatened them, and sexually harassed the women.
The suit is still pending; it was put on hold while the government pursued criminal charges against Tony DiBenedetto.
Attorney Sheila Hayre of New Haven Legal Aid said she will ask the judge to levy a monetary judgment against DiBenedetto in order to make her clients whole for lost wages and other damages.
“This is about is bringing Mr. DiBenedetto to justice for building a business that essentially depended on the profits that are obtained from exploiting undocumented workers,” added Peter Goselin, a Hartford-based attorney who has been helping legal aid with the case on a pro bono basis. Attorneys Shelley White and Jennifer Mellon also worked on the case.
Unlike in state court, defendants in federal court can’t make a plea deal with a guaranteed outcome regarding jail time. Prison time is up to the judge. But DiBenedetto’s lawyer, Hugh Keefe, said as part of the plea, the prosecution and defense agreed to ask the judge for “a period of probation” instead of prison.
Keefe said this dispute pits one immigrant family against another. Tony and Anna DiBenedetto are immigrants from Italy; their sons were born in the States. He denied the allegations of abuse and said he has “numerous” photographs of the two families celebrating together, including attending each other’s weddings.
DiBenedetto “is the absolute proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished,” Keefe argued. “He went out of his way to help people and he has been sued civilly and charged criminally by the federal government.”
“Hopefully when it’s all over, Antonio will go back to his livelihood, which is making the best pastry in town and selling it,” Keefe said.
Keefe has accused the plaintiffs of being driven by profit.
The plaintiffs, who went into hiding after the ICE raid, remain in the New Haven, according to Hayre. Most of them have been granted temporary legal status “based on the fact that they are victims and have been cooperating with the prosecution in this case.”
“They have been pretty central to the prosecution in this case,” Hayre said. They got up the courage to testify before a grand jury about alleged abuse and mistreatment, she said.
“We see our clients as whistleblowers who uncovered this exploitation that was going on there,” Hayre said.
According to federal law, the civil case was stayed while the criminal probe continued. Some damages sought in the civil case could be achieved through a monetary judgment in the criminal case, so the future of that case will depend on the sentencing, Goselin said.
Meanwhile, the six plaintiffs are “trying to put this nightmare behind them,” Hayre said. “They are clearly still haunted by this. But many of them have gone on to get other jobs, and gone a long way to the road to recovery.”