Feds charge Asplundh Tree employees with hiring undocumented workers

A row of Asplundh Tree Service trucks sit in the parking lot of Loews in Plymouth Meeting waiting to be dispatched by PECO to clear tree limbs off lines in Montgomery County in 2014.

Federal prosecutors charged three employees of a Montgomery County tree-removal company this week with conspiring to hire undocumented workers using false identification and Social Security numbers.

Asplundh Tree Expert Inc. fired employees, including about 100 in the Philadelphia region, after a federal audit in 2009 found that they were not eligible for work in the United States. But many of those workers were re-hired under fake identification and Social Security numbers, federal prosecutors said.

Asplundh is based in Willow Grove, and removes brush and vegetation from electric and gas lines. Much of the company's work is based on contracts with utilities, including Peco, and federal, state, and local governments. An Asplundh spokeswoman said the company had no comment Friday.

Unauthorized immigrants account for 21 percent of workers in the landscaping industry, according to a 2014 analysis by the Pew Research Center, with about 300,000 undocumented workers in landscaping jobs across the country.

The charges against Asplundh's employees were announced this week as President Trump reiterated promises to crack down on illegal immigration. Members of the Asplundh family have long been contributors to Republican candidates. A political action committee in the company's name gave more than $470,000 to Republican candidates during the 2016 election, including $10,000 to Trump, according to campaign finance records.

A 2009 audit of Asplundh workers by Homeland Security Investigations showed that the company had "a number of employees" who were ineligible to work in the U.S., according to the criminal information filings. 

A worker's status can be checked using E-verify, a database managed by the Department of Homeland Security that confirms whether a Social Security number matches an employee's identity. 

After Asplundh's audit, prosecutors allege, workers fired for being undocumented were rehired under false identities.

Larry Gauger, a regional manager charged with conspiracy, "instructed management that it would have 'plausible deniability' as to the fraudulent hiring because even though the employees' Social Security numbers did not truly belong to these employees, the employees' proffered Social Security numbers would be positive matches in the E-verify database."

Arthur Donato Jr., Gauger's lawyer, said Friday that he could not comment on the details of the case.

"Mr. Gauger is a good man," Donato said. "He has been with the company for a long time, and we’re going to be taking a look at everything and deciding how to proceed."

Jude Solis and Juan Rodriguez, supervisors for Asplundh, were also charged this week with conspiracy and fraud. Prosecutors said Gauger instructed the supervisors, instead of compliance officers, to manage the tasks of hiring and compliance.

Solis and Rodriguez could not immediately be reached for comment. They did not have attorneys listed in court documents.