SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) – One of the most prominent egg producers in northern Iowa pleaded guilty to U.S. District Court Friday to charges that he knowingly and repeatedly hired illegal immigrants.

Austin Jack DeCoster, 68, of Clarion, was charged with two counts of engaging in a pattern and practice of aiding and abetting the continued employment of an alien not authorized to work.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett ordered DeCoster released pending sentencing. The maximum sentence would be six months in jail with no parole, a fine of $3,000 per employee in the country illegally, and a year of probation.

As part of the agreement, DeCoster has already paid the government $2 million. He has also agreed to allow immigration officials to inspect his books and hold surprise inspections at his egg plants at his expense for the next five years.

As part of the plea hearing, DeCoster admitted that he had ignored evidence that some of the workers at the egg plants were not legally authorized to work in the United States.

He also admitted that he knew that when immigration agents were in the Clarion area that workers would not go to work or would flee to avoid being detained.

As part of a plea agreement, DeCoster already has paid a $1.25 million settlement to the government in lieu of forfeiture of assets.

He also paid $875,000 in restitution to immigration officials to cover the cost of removing illegal workers from his egg plants and monitoring the plants for the next five years.

Immigration officials will review personnel records and to make unannounced inspections.

Federal immigration officials detained dozens of DeCoster workers between Jan. 1, 1997, and Feb. 28, 2002, accusing them of not having proper documentation.

According to information filed in federal court, DeCoster, doing business as DeCoster Farms, allowed his labor contractor, Iowa Ag, to hire workers not authorized to work in the United States.

Iowa Ag owner John Glessner Jr., 41, formerly of Clarion, was sentenced last month on charges identical to DeCoster.

Glessner was sentenced to four months in prison. He also was fined $6,000 and ordered to pay $300,000 to settle a forfeiture claim.

DeCoster once owned DeCoster Egg Farms in Turner, Maine, which gained a reputation in the 1980s and 1990s as one of the nation’s most notorious workplaces.

DeCoster faced similar charges in 1989 involving illegal immigrants he had hired at his egg farms in Maine. DeCoster paid a fine to settle the charges.

AP-ES-08-08-03 2004EDT

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