Chung Cho intentionally employed undocumented workers to exploit their work and pay them less—or he is an immigrant himself who worked his way up from washing dishes and mopping floors to owning a business and providing jobs for other immigrants.
Attorneys representing Cho and those who want to prosecute him for stealing thousands from his employees at the Gourmet Heaven store on Broadway presented both versions of the man before New Haven District Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan.
Cho has applied for accelerated rehabilitation, a pre-trial intervention for non-violent offenders that could give him up to two years of probation and no jail time. Judge Keegan can impose additional requirements regarding restitution but Cho would face no jail time.
The case against Cho followed organizing by local immigrants’ rights groups and became a symbolic case cited by officials of a campaign against wage theft. Yale University Properties, Cho’s landlord, has since decided not to renew his lease when it expires next June 30.
Assistant State’s Attorney Mike Denison (pictured outside court) is pushing for a trial on the offenses alleged against Cho including a felony larceny charge. He sought in court Monday to show that Cho had not committed a simple error of booking, but that he had sought out undocumented workers and intentionally overworked and underpaid them, as determined by a state Department of Labor investigation.
“Justice has not taken place in this case,” Denison said
Denison said Cho has “a beautiful home and automobiles” to show for his deceit, while his employees got next to nothing. Because they were undocumented Cho preyed upon the idea that they would keep quiet, Denison argued.
“These people worked hard, long hours,” Denison said. “They were cheated by this individual so that the individual could have more. This should not be allowed.”
Cho was first arrested in February and struck a deal to pay $140,000 of the $254,851.23 he owed in back wages to former and current employees. He was late on the first two payments. He was arrested after the second late payment, though he made a third payment on time. Department of Labor Investigator Blair Bertaccini told the court that Cho still owes $114,851.23.
Cho’s attorney, David Leff, pushed back against Denison’s characterization, pointing out that Cho had cooperated with the Department of Labor investigation from the start, handing over his records, and participating fully in extended conversations to reach the settlement that was agreed on in August 2013.
Leff said Cho is a Korean immigrant who worked his way from the bottom up to owning the Gourmet Heaven stores on Broadway and Whitney Avenue, and other stores in Providence, R.I. He also described Cho as a family man —a husband and father of three daughters—who has been having some financial troubles.
Cho himself did not speak at the court appearance.
“This is not organized capital taking advantage of people,” Leff said. “This is not pure greed. He’s the hardest working man, and he just wants to know what he can do to make it right.”
Leff also produced a petition signed by about 2,000 supportive Gourmet Heaven customers signed in the past 60 days.
James Bhandary-Alexander, a staff attorney with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association who represents six of Cho’s former employees, told the judge that customers enjoy shopping at a store that has a great reputation as an asset to the community largely because of the people who work there. Those are the same people from whom the Department of Labor have already determined Cho stole, repeatedly, Bhandary-Alexander said.
Bhandary-Alexander told Keegan he believes that given Cho’s history of continuing to underpay his employees after he was notified that he was in violation of state and federal wage laws, he is likely to reoffend and should not be eligible for the accelerated rehabilitation program.
Former and current Gourmet Heaven employees also attended the hearing with hopes of speaking for and against Cho’s request. But Judge Keegan decided to continue the hearing until Monday to allow more time for interested parties to speak.