BANGOR, Maine — A manager of a buffet-style Chinese restaurant in Brewer that has been the target of a federal investigation since 2006 was arrested Wednesday and charged with conspiracy and aiding and abetting harboring of illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain.
Mei Ya Zhang, 28, of Brewer was released on $10,000 unsecured bond after making her first appearance in U.S. District Court before a federal judge.
Zhang, who still works at the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer, was not asked to enter a plea because she has not been indicted by a federal grand jury. She told U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk that she was born in China but is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
In interviews with a Homeland Security agent in November 2011, Zhang said that she worked for her uncle and was responsible for hiring new employees, whom she paid monthly in cash, according to the complaint filed in federal court in Bangor. She admitted knowing that the Hispanic workers she had hired were in the U.S. illegally and not authorized to work.
Zhang also said that the illegal workers lived at a “safe house” in Brewer, the complaint said. She told investigators that it was her responsibility to take the workers to and from work each day.
If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in federal prison. She also could be ordered to pay a fine of up to $250,000.
Federal prosecutors in April asked a federal judge to order the owners of 11 Chinese restaurants in three New England states to forfeit more than $153,000 seized from bank accounts in Maine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark alleged in a complaint that the Zhang organization skimmed nearly $2.9 million in cash transactions from the businesses in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island over a 10-month period. The Zhang family also hired and housed undocumented workers whom they paid in cash without withholding taxes, according to the complaint.
The Zhang family owns Twin Super Buffet in Brewer, the New China Super Buffet in Lewiston, the Super China Buffet in Waterville and the Kon Asian Bistro in Portland. It also owns five restaurants in Massachusetts and two in Rhode Island.
The principals in the Zhang organization are a group of family members. Zi Qian Zhang is the family patriarch and resides with his wife, Ai Hui Lu, in Massachusetts, according to court documents. Six other family members were named in the complaint.
Mei Ya Zhang, who is the niece of Zi Qian Zhang, is the first family member in Maine to be charged with a crime.
In November 2011, the federal prosecutor filed a complaint seeking the forfeiture of a house at 278 Elm St. in Brewer owned by Ai Hui Lu. It was used to house illegal workers in squalid conditions, according to court documents.
Those cases have been consolidated and tentatively scheduled for trial in July.
The investigation, which began in February 2006, revealed that the Zhang organization employed and harbored scores of illegal aliens at its Chinese buffets and bistros, according to the complaint filed in April. The family allegedly harbored them at 11 safe houses located near the restaurants and ferried them to and from work in vans.
Workers were paid between $1,200 and $2,000 a month in cash, and sometimes were required to work 70 or more hours per week, according to the complaint. They received no overtime pay, health insurance, workers’ compensation or other benefits.
Clark declined Wednesday to comment on the case. It is the practice of the U.S. attorney’s office not to discuss pending cases.
The federal prosecutor said he had no information about whether anyone else in the Zhang operation might have been charged in another state in connection with the family’s alleged illegal activities.