• Thomas Russell

Brownwood Furniture president gets 10 months for hiring illegals

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Rick Vartanian, president of case goods manufacturer Brownwood Furniture, has been sentenced to serve 10 months in jail after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and the hiring of undocumented workers at his furniture plant.

Vartanian, 57, was accused by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2009 of hiring undocumented workers at his Rancho Cucamonga case goods factory. A July 2009 audit of the company's records showed that 61 of its 73 workers had submitted invalid documents to obtain their jobs.

Later that year, the agency said, Vartanian told officials he no longer employed the unauthorized workers. But in December, the immigration agency determined that Brownwood continued to employ 18 of those workers and had taken steps to shield them from detection. That same month, officials also found that another 12 workers were unauthorized.

The Ocean County Register reported that officials believed that Vartanian knew that the employees did not have the proper documentation to be employed by his company. He originally faced up to 66 months in prison.

"He provided false documents to ICE, and he also made efforts to help illegal aliens evade detection," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ranee Katzenstein said in a statement.

The Register said that after his prison sentence, Vartanian will be on three years of supervised release and will be required to perform 100 hours of community service. He also has been ordered to pay a $15,000 fine.

Vartanian, whose sentence begins in late April, told Furniture/Today that while he accepts responsibility for what happens at his company, a former plant manager actually had done all the hiring of the undocumented workers. He said that employee, Jose Navarro, was fired in October 2009. Vartanian said that Navarro and two other former Brownwood supervisors went on to form another furniture manufacturer in Tijuana, Mexico.

"The ultimate responsibility since I am president falls in my lap - I understand that is how it goes," Vartanian said. "Because of my role and my position, the buck stops with me. But with regard to who was charged here and what the charges were, there is a huge disparity with what I was charged with and the ultimate sentence compared to those who were involved in the hiring of the individuals and the source of the problem."

He added that he believed the government was going after employers of illegal immigrants "because of their own ineffectiveness in controlling the borders. All they are doing is trying to shift the blame to employers."

After the government's initial 2009 audit, based on an anonymous tip, Navarro fired all the undocumented workers without board approval, Vartanian said. Vartanian said that as president, he allowed some of those workers to come back in order to run the plant and make a transition to a fully legal work force.

He added that since January 2010, the company has relied on the government's E-Verify program to properly document workers. As a result of those efforts, he said, 100% of the plant workers are legal.

Vartainian said his sentencing will not affect the company's operation, since other managers can fill in for him. Brownwood's vice president, Patrick Eberly, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case but received a one-year probation.

All of the company's bedroom, home office, home entertainment and occasional line is produced domestically, Vartanian said.

"There will be no disruption in the filling of orders, in the quality of the product or in any other areas," he said.

Thomas RussellThomas Russell | Associate Editor, FurnitureToday

I'm Tom Russell and have worked at Furniture/Today since August 2003. Since then, I have covered the international side of the business from a logistics and sourcing standpoint. Since then, I also have visited several furniture trade shows and manufacturing plants in Asia, which has helped me gain perspective about the industry in that part of the world. As I continue covering the import side of the business, I look forward to building on that knowledge base through conversations with industry officials and future overseas plant tours. From time to time, I will file news and other industry perspectives online and, as always, welcome your response to these Web postings.

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