Two Jacksonville residents were sentenced last week to federal prison after pleading guilty to crimes related to a scheme to employ undocumented aliens in the construction industry, avoid payroll taxes and circumvent workers’ compensation laws.
U.S. District Judge Brian Davis sentenced Fanny Melina Zelaya-Mendez, 39, to four years in prison for three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS and one count of aggravated identity theft.
Roger Omar Zelaya-Mendez, 34, was sentenced to two years for one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS.
The court ordered them to forfeit two vehicles and $399,776.43 seized in the investigation.
The defendants, siblings, also were ordered to forfeit $1,033,485 in proceeds from the wire fraud offenses and pay restitution to the IRS for a tax loss totaling $6,536,796.
In addition, the Zelaya-Mendezes, citizens of Honduras, were found to be unlawfully present in the U.S.
According to an indictment handed down in May by a federal grand jury in Jacksonville, the defendants established three shell companies and then obtained minimal workers’ compensation insurance covering only a few employees purported to work at each of the companies. They then entered into agreements with building contractors in Clay, Duval, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties to provide hundreds of construction workers, most of whom also were undocumented aliens.
The defendants provided the shell companies’ Certificates of Liability Insurance to numerous building contractors and subcontractors in Northeast Florida.
The contractors wrote payroll checks to the shell companies for work performed. The defendants cashed the checks, kept 4 percent as a fee and gave the remaining cash to work crew leaders, who then paid the workers in cash.
By hiring and paying the workers through the shell companies, the contractors could disclaim responsibility for making sure the workers were legally authorized to work in the U.S., that required workers’ compensation insurance was provided and that payroll taxes were withheld and paid to the government.
The investigation determined that between June 2016 and April 2018, a total of $25,827,141 of payroll passed through the shell companies. The IRS estimated that $6,536,796 in taxes were due on the payroll, but neither the Zelaya-Mendezes nor the contractors remitted the taxes to the IRS.
In addition, the 4 percent fee collected by the defendants totaled $1,033,485.
When Fanny Zelaya-Mendez was arrested May 4, 2018, she gave a false name to an immigration officer. She claimed to be a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico and presented a valid Florida identification card she had obtained in the false name.
The investigation revealed that the identity she had adopted was for a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico and that the ID card was obtained with a Puerto Rico birth certificate and an authentic Social Security card.
Roger Zelaya-Mendez was unlawfully in the U.S. after having been deported and returned to Honduras in February 2009 and again in July 2012, according to the indictment.
“These sentences should remind anyone who circumvents our nation’s immigration laws and exploits the financial industry that they will be held accountable,” said Homeland Security Special Agent in Charge James Spero, in a news release.
The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation.
It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Arnold Corsmeier.