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French Gourmet owner pledges to fight federal charges

By Steve Perez

Contributor

In the wake of federal charges filed against the owner and a longtime manager of The French Gourmet, Inc., the company is seeking to reassure customers that it intends to remain in business.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the seizure of the popular bakery and catering business near La Jolla. A federal indictment filed recently against its president and a manager alleges the hiring of undocumented workers through Dec. 31, 2008.

Michel Malecot, president, and Richard Kauffman, manager, have entered not guilty pleas to the charges. They are free on bonds of $75,000 and $60,000, respectively. A hearing in the case is set for May 3 in federal court.

“Let’s remember in the United States of America, one is innocent until proven guilty,” Maleco wrote in a letter e-mailed to concerned customers. “We have been assured by our legal counsel that to ‘seek to seize’ is a far cry from actually being forced to close down.”

Potential penalties against the corporation are in excess of $500,000 for each violation. The penalties for the defendants exceed $250,000 per violation as well as time in federal prison.

If federal prosecutors succeed in seizing the business, the move would affect not only The French Gourmet, but also a neighboring tavern known as Froggie’s, which leases its property from Maleco’s company.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the office would not comment as the case is now filed and being prosecuted in federal court.

Malecot’s attorney characterized the federal filing as an “overreach” involving events that occurred from 2003 to 2006, a time when such employee filings were handled largely via paper, rather than electronically. Further, Eugene Iredale said, the federal government’s motion to seize property is typically used in drug cases, or in illegal hiring cases involving “hundreds and hundreds” of workers and coordinating smuggling and recruiting efforts in Mexico.

His client’s case involves 11 people out of approximately 300 employes over the three year period, where no more than 125 people worked for the company at any given time.

“We think the stature they are invoking applies to cocaine, but not croissants, to ‘crack’ but not crème brullee,” Iredale said employers must also adhere to laws that require them to not discriminate against potential workers base on race and national origin, Iredale

said, requiring them to accept documents that are “valid or appear to be valid.”

In his e-mail letter, a copy of which was obtained by the La Jolla Light, Malecot pledges to remain in business.

“It is my hope that The French Gourmet’s 31 years in business and our reputation and goodwill in the community will convince you of our commitment to continue to provide the best service and value to our clients,” he wrote.

In Malecot’s e-mail, he forwarded copies of 10 letters or e-mails of support received from customers and supporters, many lauding his generosity shown to public and private schools and community causes. The business’s accolades include a 2009 “Best Caterer” award from readers of the La Jolla Light.

The April 16 indictment stems from an immigration raid on the property at 954-960 Turquoise St. in Pacific Beach in May 2008.

In the indictment, U.S. prosecutors allege The French Gourmet, Inc. “engaged in a pattern or practice of hiring and continuing to employ unauthorized workers” in violation of federal laws.

The corporation is charged with 14 felony counts, including conspiracy, false attestation and harboring illegal aliens.

Malecot and Kauffman are charged with conspiracy, eight counts of false attestation and three counts of harboring illegal aliens.

The indictment alleges the restaurant, bakery and catering business hired undocumented workers and that Kauffmann and other managers certified on employment I-9 forms that the workers had presented proper documentation.

The workers were given paychecks until receiving a “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration that stated social security numbers did not match the employees reported on taxes.

After the letter was received, the workers were paid in cash, the indictment alleges, until the workers presented new documents, which prosecutors allege were also illegitimate.