Acambaro out to regain assets seized in raids
Posted on Sunday, March 16, 2008
When immigration agents seized Acambaro restaurants’ bank accounts, real estate and equipment in a raid last December, the chain promptly declared bankruptcy. The maneuver set up an unusual legal tug-of-war now unfolding in Fayetteville. U. S. Attorney Bob Balfe said Acambaro Mexican Restaurant Inc. and two subsidiaries, which operated a chain of restaurants in Benton and Washington counties, should forfeit the property because it represents the profits of illegal labor. However, Acambaro’s bankruptcy attorney said the government should get its hands off assets the business needs to reorganize and pay obligations under bankruptcy laws. “Today, we have 75 legal Americans working in these restaurants, and we’d like to keep them employed,” said John Blair. In the courtroom one floor above in the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in Fayetteville, Acambaro and four of its operators face criminal charges of harboring illegal aliens and money laundering.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 23 suspected illegal aliens in the Dec. 10 raid. The government claims Acambaro knowingly hired illegal aliens. Trial is scheduled for June 2. Noting that neither the restaurant nor any of its operators has been found guilty, Blair petitioned the bankruptcy court to order the government to release eight Acambaro trucks, business computers and $ 149, 000 from bank accounts. Chief among the debts that Acambaro officials say the business needs the money to satisfy: state and federal taxes. Assistant U. S. attorney Debbie Groom said it would be wrong to allow criminal defendants whose assets are seized because of alleged crimes to duck into bankruptcy court to get their property back. “That would be bad public policy,” Groom said. Defendants could blow through all the cash before the government could complete its prosecution and win a forfeiture order. That would defeat the whole point, she said, and allow criminals to profit from ill-gotten gains. “The whole purpose of the forfeiture is that this is illegal money,” Groom said. Groom and Blair took their arguments to U. S. Bankruptcy Judge Ben Barry during a hearing last week. The judge made no immediate ruling. Paul Cottrell, special agent with the immigration enforcement office in Fayetteville, said the money seized from Acambaro’s accounts at Arvest Bank now is being held in a U. S. Treasury “suspense fund” while government forfeiture actions proceed on two tracks.
The agency is pursuing an administrative forfeiture action that Cottrell said soon will be transferred to U. S. District Court as a civil forfeiture case. Meanwhile, the U. S. attorney’s office is pursuing criminal forfeiture, Groom said. If the government wins, it keeps the assets, as often occurs in drug seizures. But the forfeiture cases are expected to take several months to conclude, Groom said. Until then, at least, Acambaro has every right to use its trucks, computers and cash to run its business under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, Blair asserted. The government also has moved to seize $ 3. 5 million in real estate owned by Arturo Reyes Jr. and the other principals in the business. Blair said he’s not arguing for the government to release those claims, because it has not ordered the business or individuals off the properties. Acambaro continues to operate in select locations — and is profitable, Blair said. Not as profitable as it was before, however. Cottrell testified that the Acambaro investigation turned up $ 10 million in bank deposits, dating to June 2004. Much of it was in cash, and investigators determined the restaurant “was engaged in money laundering,” he said. While testimony at previous hearings has revealed that Acambaro often paid its employees in cash, Cottrell testified last week that the restaurant paid between minimum wage and $ 10 an hour. Questioned by Blair, he acknowledged that Acambaro tax records show that the business was generating more than $ 1 million per quarter during 2007. During 2006, the restaurant also generated “several million dollars,” he said. At the end of the hearing, the bankruptcy judge gave Groom and Blair two weeks to present briefs. Barry also said that he planned to make a decision soon after, because the issue will be moot the time the forfeiture cases wrap up. Acambaro could be through by then, too. “By then,” the judge said, “they’ll be out of business.”
Update on the possible special session: