False ID Charges Could Cost Men 50 Years

     HOUSTON (CN) – Two Houston men accused of supplying false identities to undocumented garbage workers could be sentenced to more than 50 years in federal prison if convicted in their jury trial.
     Rudy Martinez and Israel Martinez, who are not related, face 18 immigration-related charges in the trial that began this week. Trials in such cases are rare because defendants usually take a plea deal. Three of the five people charged in this case have pleaded guilty.
     It began when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided a Waste Management garbage truck yard on Afton Road in Houston.
     ICE arrested 16 undocumented immigrants in the April 24, 2012 raid at the yard, run at the time by Associated Marine & Industrial Staffing dba AMI Staffing, which had a $20 million contract with Waste Management.
     Waste Management is one of the nation’s biggest trash and recyclable collecting companies. The government did not prosecute or fine it because all of the people arrested worked for AMI Staffing.
     Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Doughty told Courthouse News on Thursday that the company cooperated with the federal investigation and tightened up its employment practices after the raid.
     “The steps we took included switching temporary staffing vendors, putting in place a new temporary labor program director, launching an internal immigration task force, and conducting random audits. Five employees were terminated. We’re not aware of any government actions directed at the company,” Doughty said in an email.
     Israel Martinez drove a Waste Management garbage truck, a position that put him in charge of “helpers” who rode on the back of the truck and collected the garbage, according to testimony Thursday, the third day of trial.
     Rudy Martinez started out as a driver and was promoted to schedule manager, Juan Benitez testified.
     Benitez took the stand Thursday morning for the prosecution and told the jury he paid a coyote $5,500 to smuggle him into the United States through Mexico because he couldn’t survive on the $42.50 weekly salary from his welding job in El Salvador.
     Speaking through an interpreter, Benitez said he traveled to Houston and bought an identification in someone else’s name at a pulga, or flea market.
     “I knew I was breaking the law but I felt I had no choice,” he said. Though El Salvador’s civil war is over, the country is still wracked by violence.
     Benitez often paused as he stared at the Martinezes’ defense attorneys as if meditating on their questions, his thick black hair and handlebar mustache offset by a purple shirt.
     Clasping his fingers at his chest, he said that after AMI Staffing fired him “because I had no documents,” Israel and Rudy Martinez told him he could get his job back if he had “good papers.”
     Benitez told federal prosecutor Casey MacDonald that it didn’t take long for him to find a new identification and Social Security number through a friend of a friend at his apartment complex.
     He said Samantha Romo gave him the Social Security number and identification of her father, a man he’d never seen before Thursday, when prosecutors displayed a close-up photo of his face on a projector.
     Romo’s father seemed present in the courtroom, staring intensely out of a face lined with deep wrinkles at the jury of seven women and five men, none of them Hispanic.
     Benitez said that four days after he was fired he returned to the Waste Management yard with Romo’s papers and AMI Staffing employee Mary Flores immediately sent him back to his regular job, sweeping up.
     A grand jury charged the Martinezes and Flores on May 21, 2014 in a 13-count indictment. Flores pleaded guilty to one count – conspiracy to hire more than 10 undocumented aliens. She testified for the prosecution Thursday. A superseding indictment added five counts for Israel and Rudy Martinez.
     Flores said AMI Staffing assigned her to the Waste Management yard for one reason: “I was sent to Waste Management to clean house. To fire all the undocumented workers.”
     She estimated that of AMI Staffing’s 80 to 100 workers there, as many as 98 percent were in the United States illegally.
     Flores’ jet black hair rested on her purple sweatshirt. She seemed comfortable testifying, making frequent eye contact with jurors. During a break she leaned back on the witness stand and drummed its wooden frame with her palms.
     Her demeanor contrasted with the defendants. Israel Martinez leaned back low in his seat at the defense table, his cat-like eyes honed in on Flores.
     Rudy Martinez sat ramrod straight in his chair across the table wearing a frown and a black jacket with a leather collar, hairspray in his Caesar cut glinting in the courtroom’s fluorescent light.
     Flores said the trouble started after Staff Management, a third-party contractor, audited AMI Staffing’s payroll.
     “Once they started auditing our payroll they were bringing up a lot of names that weren’t in the system correctly and they’d been there for years,” Flores testified.
     She said that after she fired up to 20 undocumented workers in January 2012, Israel Martinez hatched a plan to bring them back by giving them the Social Security numbers of former workers or of men who applied but found the garbage collecting too strenuous – some of whom lasted less than half a day on the job.
     Flores said she went along with the plan, but when “it got of hand” she had trouble keeping track of the workers. She began keeping lists of workers’ real names next to the identity they were using, and shredded the lists at the end of each week.
     Waste Management’s onsite boss Caesar Santiago Arroyo knew about the identity fraud, she testified.
     Flores said that after the undocumented workers were fired, Santiago told them they could get their jobs back.
     “He just told them to go get IDs and Social Security numbers, whether they be bought, or from individuals,” she said.
     Flores said that she, Rudy and Israel Martinez and Santiago all found names for undocumented workers to use.
     Santiago pleaded guilty in October 2014 to conspiracy to hire 10 or more undocumented immigrants. He will be sentenced on June 24.
     Prosecutor MacDonald pressed Flores about how many undocumented workers she hired.
     “I hired some of them,” Flores said.
     “You pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hire 10 or more illegal aliens. Why did you plead guilty?” MacDonald asked.
     “Because I knew it was wrong to have these illegals there. I knew right from wrong, but I continued to make it easier for them. I didn’t want to lose the $20 million account,” Flores said.
     Defense attorney Grant Scheiner put Flores on the hot seat by focusing on the deal she cut with prosecutors.
     Flores acknowledged that her attorneys told her that if she provides the government with “substantial assistance” in the case, prosecutors would file a “5K1.1” motion for downward departure that could reduce her sentence so she may not have to do any time.
     “It’s in the sole discretion of the prosecutors whether that motion is filed, correct?” Scheiner asked.
     “Yes,” Flores said.
     “So you know they’re holding the cards for what substantial assistance is: They get to define what that is, correct?”
     “I guess so.”
     Scheiner asked Flores if prison scares her and if she worries about being away from her family.
     “Hasn’t this thing been like a dark cloud hanging over your head?” he asked.
     “Yeah, but there’s sunshine every now and then,” Flores said.
     “Sure. Sort of like the light at the end of the tunnel, right?”
     “Yes,” Flores said emphatically.
     “You’re praying that the prosecutors are going to be satisfied with your testimony, right?” Scheiner asked.
     “At the end of it all, it’s not up to the prosecutors. It’s up to the judge. … At the end of the day, it depends on how the judge wakes up in the morning, and if she wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, forget it,” Flores said, bringing laughter from the 30 people in the courtroom and from U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon.
     The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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