In a packed courtroom at the New Haven Superior Court yesterday afternoon, lawyers presented two starkly opposing portraits of former Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho.
Yesterday marked the second and final installment in the hearings for Cho’s request for accelerated rehabilitation — a program that would leave no traces on his record and grant him a maximum probation period of two years. After Judge Maureen Keegan heard opposing cases from Cho’s lawyer and the state prosecutor last Monday, this week’s hearing featured testimonies from around 20 of Cho’s current and former employees. Four of the employees who testified claimed to have been mistreated by Cho — however, the other workers spoke favorably of Cho, saying they had never had a problem with receiving payments.
“The ramifications of this case can affect either positively or negatively labor relations with regard to minorities and immigrant laborers throughout the state,” said Michael Denison, the state prosecutor for the case. “All of these workers are in a tough spot right now.”
Cho was arrested in February on 42 felony and misdemeanor charges of wage theft after failing to comply with an agreement he made with the Connecticut Department of Labor to pay the workers from whom he had allegedly stolen wages. To qualify for accelerated rehabilitation, he must meet two criteria: The court must find the defendant not likely to offend again, and the crime must not be deemed to be of a serious nature.
The first four witnesses claimed that they had faced retaliation from Cho for cooperating with the DOL investigation in 2013. These consequences included a cut back of hours and, for three who testified, being fired, according to the witnesses.
Misael Morales, a former Gourmet Heaven worker and one of the plaintiffs, said he had been making $260 dollars a week before the DOL investigation. After, he was paid $400 for the same amount of work. Yet soon after, he said that he was let go, without receiving his last pay check.
“Just for telling the truth, I was fired,” Morales said.
Another worker, Alejandro Rodrigez, who has worked at Gourmet Heaven for over 12 years, said that after he signed documents provided to him by the DOL, his hours at the store were dramatically decreased. Rodrigez said he was often paid only around $240 for the 72 hours he worked each week.
All of the witnesses against Cho required a Spanish language interpreter.
Cho’s lawyer, David Leff, brought in a group of Gourmet Heaven workers who shared very different stories.
“I’ve never met a boss like that — he’s an amazing person,” said Tania Vieales, a former employee who is on leave due to pregnancy. “Gourmet Heaven is not just a place where you work, it’s like a family there.”
Over a dozen current and former workers, some who had worked for the store for over a decade, told the judge about fair, equal treatment received from Cho. They cited birthday gifts that Cho had given to workers, as well as meals he had treated them to at local restaurants.
Victor Silva, an employee who has worked for Cho for over 15 years, said Cho had rented a house for Gourmet Heaven employees where they were allowed to live for a period of time without paying rent.
“I don’t want to lose my job. I have a family to support here and also my family in Mexico,” Silva said.
Though Yale University decided to terminate the business’s lease after it expires in June 2015, Leff cited a petition in support of keeping Gourmet Heaven open that circulated last month and garnered over 2,000 signatures as evidence that Gourmet Heaven was an integral part of the community. The petition was positioned on the counter of the Broadway store for customers to sign.
Yet Denison rejected the petition as irrelevant, and, on similar grounds, said that many of the testimonies given by workers in favor of Cho did not address the issue at hand.
“We’re talking about basic human rights in this case. Not about how nice Mr. Cho is, not about birthday presents, not about whether the store should close,” Denison said.
Additionally, James Bhandary-Alexander, the lawyer for the six workers who reported wage theft, said that eight of the workers who had testified in support of Cho had actually received back wage payments as a result of the DOL investigation.
Blair Bertaccini, the DOL investigator in charge of the case, said that he thinks Leff mischaracterized the situation. While Leff said Cho made every payment requested by the DOL, Bertaccini noted that Cho only made the payments of the original agreement, which Cho broke after the second payment was late.
In fact, by the terms of the new agreement, Bertaccini said that Cho still owes around $147,000 in back wages. He added that it was particularly important to highlight that Cho also was not entirely cooperative in the investigation.
Cho had initially only provided the court with names of undocumented workers, Bertaccini said, who worked at the store during the day — not those who worked during the night.
“I hope that after hearing the testimonies of the workers, the judge understands the seriousness of the matter,” said Evelyn Nunez ’15, president of MEChA de Yale, a campus social justice group that staged protests outside of Gourmet Heaven’s Broadway location last year. “I would echo the sentiments of the prosecutor who said the decision for this case would set a very large precedent for what could be allowed.”