BANGOR, Maine — The former manager of a buffet-style Chinese restaurant in Brewer that has been the target of a federal investigation since 2006 waived indictment Wednesday in U.S. District Court and pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to employing and harboring undocumented workers.
Mei Ya Zhang, 28, of Brewer, pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and aiding and abetting harboring of illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain, money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to file false employer’s quarterly federal tax returns.
Zhang was arrested in January, more than three years after the Twin Super Buffet was first raided in November 2011.
Zhang’s sentencing date has not been set. She remains free on $10,000 unsecured bond.
The Twin Super Buffet closed Feb. 25, according to a previously published report. Zhang said in early February that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents came to the restaurant three times in a 13-month period, but found no illegal activity.
Zhang said in February that she planned to work in the family’s Waterville restaurant.
The Zhang family owns 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.
Zi Qian Zhang is the family patriarch and resides with his wife, Ai Hui Lu, in Massachusetts, according to court documents.
Mei Ya Zhang, who is the niece of Zi Qian Zhang, was the first family member in Maine to be charged with a crime. A second niece, Mei Juan Zhang, 30, of Fairfield waived indictment and pleaded guilty to the same charges in April in federal court in Bangor.
The older woman remains free on bail. Her sentencing date has not been set.
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 court documents. The family allegedly harbored them at 11 safe houses located near the restaurants and ferried them to and from work in vans.
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.
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.