Facing charges that could put him behind bars for the remainder of his life, Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho has filed a motion meant to keep him out of jail.
Accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from workers, Cho — who was arrested in February on 42 felony and misdemeanor charges of wage theft — along with his attorney David Leff, has applied for accelerated rehabilitation. If successful, Cho would avoid jail with no traces on his criminal record and a maximum probation period of two years. Prosecutors have opposed the move, and on Monday, Leff and state attorney Michael Denison presented opposing cases before New Haven District Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan.
“We’re opposing the [accelerated rehabilitation] program on the grounds that it is too serious a matter,” Denison said. “We hope the outcome of this has a positive effect on New Haven and the employer-employee relationships around it.”
Under Connecticut law, there are two grounds upon which a judge can reject an accelerated rehabilitation application — if the crime is of a serious nature and if the defendant is likely to offend again. James Bhandary-Alexander, the representative of six former Gourmet Heaven workers who suffered from the wage theft, said he thinks that the extent of Cho’s wage theft and his behavior throughout the Department of Labor investigation would most likely meet both of these criteria. Because the sum of stolen wages amounts to over $10,000, Cho faces a charge of first-degree larceny — a Class B felony.
One of the main criteria the Connecticut Supreme Court uses to decide whether to grant accelerated rehabilitation is the length of the sentence, as authorized by state statutes. The shorter the sentence, the more likely the applicant will be eligible.
According to Bhandary-Alexander, the aggregate of Cho’s offenses could lead to a long prison sentence, totalling “something like 145 years.”
“If you go by that standard, this qualifies as too serious [to grant accelerated rehabilitation],” he said.
Denison said that there is reason to believe that Cho will reoffend. After the DOL found that Cho was underpaying workers in August 2013 and explained what steps he needed to take to comply with the DOL, he continued to commit labor violations. After further negotiations, Cho agreed to pay $140,000 in back wages to 25 workers in three payment installments beginning in 2014. However, Cho failed to pay back the full extent of the payments, Denison said.
At Monday’s hearing, Leff emphasized that Cho has been cooperative throughout the DOL’s investigation, seeking to rectify the situation and willingly turning over wage records. He also displayed a petition signed by roughly 2,000 Gourmet Heaven customers over the last two months who supported Cho’s application for accelerated rehabilitation.
Yet Evelyn Nunez ’15, president of MEChA de Yale, an undergraduate social justice group heavily involved in protests against Gourmet Heaven last year, said that she does not think the petition accurately reflects Yale students’ perceptions of Cho.
“I think most likely the people who sign this petition probably are not familiar with anything that’s happened and don’t really know the incidences of wage theft that have happened at [Gourmet Heaven],” she said
Nunez attended the Monday hearing to show her support for the workers. Although she said a few other members of MEChA had expressed interest in coming, she did not see any other Yale students at the hearing.
The next hearing is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 3, at 2:00 p.m. The six workers that experienced wage theft who are represented by Bhandary-Alexander, as well as current Gourmet Heaven workers speaking in favor of Cho, are scheduled to testify.