Labor Boss Faces New Charges

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Friday, July 15, 2005


Federal authorities leveled new charges Thursday against a North Florida farm labor boss already facing indictment, accusing him of environmental and other violations while bringing new drug charges against others at the camp.

The charges, filed as part of a superseding indictment against longtime labor contractor Ronald Evans Sr., 57, represent the federal government's latest assault against long-standing abuses of the men and women who harvest Florida's crops.

Just a day earlier, a town hall forum in Palatka drew politicians, regulators, growers, contractors, advocates and workers in a spirited discussion aiming to root out abuses that have tainted both this rural stretch of Florida and the state's second richest industry.

The new charges build from a mushrooming investigation into Evans' East Palatka housing camp. Last month, federal agents and Putnam County sheriff's officials raided the camp, finding 148 rocks of crack cocaine and unearthing evidence the camp was polluting a nearby creek flowing into the St. Johns River with human and other waste.

Evans was initially arrested on five federal charges of lying to U.S. Labor officials and allowing three underlings to transport workers without license. Three associates were also charged at the time.

On Thursday, two new charges were filed against Evans.

One was for allegedly making another false statement to U.S. labor officials.

The other: violating the federal Clean Water Act by reportedly ``dumping sewage into a water of the United States without permit,'' according to a press release from Jacksonville U.S. Attorney Paul I. Perez. ``We had Phase One,'' Steve Cole, a spokesman for Perez, said of the initial charges. ``This is Phase Two. And it's an ongoing investigation. I can't speculate on how many phases we'll have.''

In May, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators discovered a five-foot PVC pipe ``protruding from underneath a wooden security fence'' on the camp's lower boundary.

Cow Creek, a seven- to eight-foot-wide waterway running behind the Evans camp, flows directly into the St. Johns River.

``At the time I observed it . . . the white PVC pipe was discharging directly into Cow Creek gray, cloudy liquid,'' James Mowatt III, a special agent with EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, wrote in an affidavit.

``In the creek, directly at and near the area that the PVC pipe was discharging into the creek, I recognized a substantial quantity of both submerged and floating human waste,'' he continued.

The new environmental charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, and the false statement charge up to five years.

Evans, free on bond, has been barred from his labor camp. He has not responded to five requests for an interview since the initial charges were brought. His Jacksonville attorney, Robert Willis, could not be reached Thursday evening. At the Palatka forum a night earlier, Evans' son, Ron Evans Jr., defended the camp, saying many workers had been there for years.

New federal charges were also filed against four others associated with the camp.

Emma Mae Johnson, 44, and Nathaniel Davenport (also known as James Bryant), 56, both charged in the initial case, each face additional counts of making false statements to labor officials. Irvin Sutton, 67, and Eugene Sheppard, 55, were charged in a separate indictment with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine from the camp.

Civil-rights attorneys have begun interviewing some of the laborers housed at the squalid, horseshoe-shaped compound, exploring allegations that workers were cheated of pay by deductions for crack cocaine.

The investigation, led by personnel from the U.S. Department of Labor, Drug Enforcement Administration, EPA and Putnam County Sheriff's Office, continues.

Such scrutiny helped prompt state Sen. Anthony ``Tony'' Hill Sr. to call Wednesday's forum in Palatka. Hill is exploring whether Florida's tattered camps should be replaced with affordable housing. Among other reforms, he is exploring whether Florida should require that farm laborers be paid by check to avoid abuses.

``We're here tonight to talk about some solutions,'' Hill told the forum.

``We wanted to see if we in North Florida could get it right.''