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A grand jury has indicted the general manager of an O'Neill tomato plant on allegations that he knowingly used a staffing company that supplied him with workers who were in the country illegally.

Rick Karnes and his company, O'Neill Ventures, both are charged with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens as early as 2015.

If convicted, Karnes could get up to 10 years in federal prison and be fined up to $250,000. His company could be fined up to twice that.

The government also is seeking $6.5 million, which it alleges are illegal proceeds that can be traced to the scheme to make money off migrant laborers who couldn't legally work in the U.S.

Karnes is set to go to court on the charges for the first time in early May.

The case was the latest to come out of a plot uncovered last year involving Juan Pablo Delgado's staffing company, which supplied agricultural corporations with a cheap, illegal labor force.

In the indictment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Woods said 53 of 75 workers at the tomato plant on Aug. 8, 2018, were unlawfully in the country.

She said O'Neill Ventures provided Delgado with a loan so he could obtain workman's compensation insurance and liability insurance to start his staffing companies so that O'Neill Ventures wouldn't have to hire them directly.

O'Neill Ventures paid $13 per hour for each worker provided and Delgado would pay each worker as little as $8 an hour, keeping the rest for himself, according to court records.

Woods said O'Neill Ventures used false names and identities for the workers to hide their identities from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others and failed to verify that they could work in the U.S. or complete necessary paperwork.

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At Delgado's plea hearing earlier this year, Woods said he conspired with corporate supervisors at several medium- to large-sized ag corporations to make it appear as though the workers were solely employed by him.

"This allowed the agricultural corporations to try and avoid criminal responsibility for immigration violations and to benefit from a cheaper labor pool that they could draw on tax-free," she said.

In total, she said, Delgado provided hundreds of workers through JP and Sons LLC and J Green Valley LLC between 2015 and last July. On Aug. 8, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came with arrest warrants to the O'Neill area and two communities in Minnesota.

In all, Homeland Security investigations encountered 133 people in the country illegally.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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