Restaurant owner indicted in false payment scheme

The owner of a Mexican restaurant in Charleston was indicted Wednesday on charges that he lied to investigators with the U.S. Department of Labor and submitted falsified documents to that agency to make it appear as if he paid proper wages to his employees.

Jose Jamie Villalpando, owner of the Senor Tequila restaurant at 1836 Ashley River Road, is facing four felony charges that carry a combined maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. Villalpando has not entered a plea. An arraignment hearing is scheduled for April 29 in Charleston.

Villalpando could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to the indictment, labor officials started an investigation in late 2009 into whether Senor Tequila employees were being paid proper minimum wage and overtime in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. That investigation showed the restaurant failed to pay seven of its workers more than $106,103 during a two-year period that ended in July 2010.

Instead of paying the back wages as promised, Villalpando wrote checks to the employees and then told those workers to withdraw the amount of the checks from their bank accounts and pay him back, according to the indictment.

In addition to a charge that he lied about the scheme to investigators, Villalpando faces three charges that he submitted letters to federal officials falsely stating that the employees had been paid in full.

The criminal case follows a civil lawsuit filed in 2012 against Villalpando in which two Senor Tequila employees alleged the restaurant did not pay proper wages. The case was settled last year when Villalpando agreed to pay a combined $28,000 to the employees and their lawyer, according to court documents.

In addition, the Charleston County Register of Deeds office shows the state’s Department of Revenue filed a $437 tax lien against the Senor Tequila on Ashley River Road in 2007. The state’s Workers Compensation Uninsured Employers Fund, which pays medical bills for employees of companies that fail to pay mandated workers compensation insurance, filed a lien against Senor Tequila’s assets in 2006, county records show.

The Ashley River Road location of Senor Tequila is the only one named in Wednesday’s indictment. Court documents show Villalpando also owns Senor Tequila restaurants in Summerville and Mount Pleasant.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_