Senor Tequila owner pleads guilty in false back-pay scheme involving employees (copy)

A Mexican restaurant operator with three locations in the Charleston region will pay nearly $280,000 in back pay and damages to 68 employees to settle a government investigation into wage and record-keeping violations, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday.

Senor Tequila Inc. also was assessed $52,615 in civil penalties.

The chain, which had a previous run-in with the Labor Department, is owned by Jaime and Sandra Villalpando. Its three restaurants are in Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Summerville.

Investigators said in a court document that they discovered repeated violations of minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act between Sept. 4, 2013, and Sept. 1, 2017.

The government filed its complaint against Senor Tequila and its owners in U.S. District Court in Charleston earlier this month. The Villalpandos quickly settled and agreed not to violate the labor act in the future. Judge Richard Gergel approved the consent order Tuesday, the Labor Department said.

“The employers have violated the FLSA previously and are aware of the wage laws and their obligation to pay employees for all hours they have worked,” said Jamie Benefiel, district director of the agency’s Wage and Hour Division. 

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Benefiel was referring to a 2011 case in which Jamie Villalpando agreed to compensate seven employees who were denied minimum wage and overtime pay. An investigation revealed he owed them $106,103.

The Senor Tequila owner was later indicted and sentenced to five months in prison for violating that settlement by devising a scheme to have three of the workers gradually return their share of the money to him.

Villalpando's sentence in 2016 included three years in a supervised release program and nearly $76,000 in restitution to the Department of Labor.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott