09/22/14 4:40pm
09/22/2014 4:40 PM
CYNDI MURRAY FILE PHOTO | Law enforcement officials outside Cutchogue 7-Eleven.

CYNDI MURRAY FILE PHOTO | Law enforcement officials outside the Cutchogue 7-Eleven during an immigration sweep in June 2013.

Five people indicted in last year’s federal raid on a series of 7-Eleven stores across Long Island and Virginia — including one couple who operated the stores in Cutchogue and Greenport — have pleaded guilty to wire fraud and concealing and harboring illegal aliens while stealing their wages, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

As part of their plea, the defendants forfeited the rights to 10 7-Eleven stores in New York and four 7-Eleven stores in Virginia, as well as five houses in New York worth over $1.3 million, prosecutors said. The deal marked the largest criminal immigration forfeiture in Department of Homeland Security history, according to the news release.

The defendants also agreed to pay more than $2.6 million in restitution for the back wages that they stole from their workers, the release states.

Farrukh Baig, 58, and his wife Bushra Baig, 50, both of Head of the Harbor, pleaded guilty before a federal magistrate judge in Central Islip court Monday, according to a news release.

Mr. Baig’s brothers — Zahid Baig, 52, of Chesapeake, Va. and Shannawaz Baig, 62, of Virginia Beach, Va. — along with co-defendant Malik Yousaf, 51, of South Setauket, also pleaded guilty. They had helped to “manage and control the stores,” prosecutors said.

Two others in the case —Tariq Rana of Chesapeake, Va. and Ramon Nanas of Great River — had previously pleaded guilty. A separate case against two other owners is still in federal court, though online court documents show the defendants are in the midst of plea negotiations.

Federal agents seized the 7-Eleven stores and arrested the defendants during a sweeping raid across Long Island and Virginia in June 2013.

Prosecutors said the ring hired illegal immigrants to work in their stores and stole the identities of 25 people  — including an 8-year-old, three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet — to trick 7-Eleven’s corporate headquarters into thinking the immigrants were U.S. citizens.

“In our backyards, the defendants not only systematically employed illegal aliens, but concealed their employment by stealing the identities of children and even the dead,” added U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.

The group docked millions in pay from the immigrants wages and had them pay rent to the owners of the 7-Eleven, prosecutors said. Employees sometimes worked more than 100 hours per week, but were paid as if they had only worked for as little as 25 hours, prosecutors said.

“These defendants knowingly hired illegal aliens to feed their greed,” said Homeland Security special agent-in-charge James Hayes.

“The defendants also exploited their alien employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses,” Ms. Lynch added. “We are committed to preserving the rule of law and protecting our communities from the abuses of corrupt businesses seeking to gain illegal advantage.”

When sentenced, Farrukh Baig and Malik Yousaf face up to 20 years in prison; Bushra Baig, Shahnawaz Baig, and Zahid Baig all face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The nature of their plea deal was not immediately made available.

The sentencing for the group has not been scheduled yet, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

[email protected]

06/22/14 10:00am
06/22/2014 10:00 AM

Cutchogue 7-Eleven reopensPetitions. Picket signs. Whistles and horns. Your local Democratic party leader comparing it to Walmart, which has “destroyed America.”

Dozens of letters to the editor.

That’s how you protest a 7-Eleven. At least, that’s how they did it in Mattituck in 2009.

The folks in Flanders, however, have taken another tack to try and stop a local “Sevs” from opening. They’ve waited until after construction started to raise concerns publicly, despite News-Review coverage of the store’s coming dating back to December, when plans for a 7-Eleven at Flanders Road and Cypress Avenue were filed.

All isn’t lost for Flanders residents, however.

If they keep up the fight, the company might see to it that a “countrified” version of 7-Eleven — complete with dry-stacked veneer stones and faux shingle siding — be built to improve the franchise’s appearance. You see, the Mattituck protesters never won their battle; they just got a prettier store.

I’d caution Flanders residents against fighting too hard, though. Just look at what happened on Route 25A in Wading River, where locals successfully protested a planned 7-Eleven in the 1980s and instead got a McDonald’s — albeit a “countrified” McDonald’s.

This all got me to thinking. What the heck is wrong with 7-Eleven, anyway? I can understand complaints about Walmart putting mom-and-pop shops out of business and altering the faces of entire communities, but are 7-Elevens really shutting down local pizza parlors and chasing away bagel shops? Are they undercutting the local IGA?

And is having a convenient place to buy milk or allergy medicine in the wee hours really so bad?

Despite everyone’s fears, the bump in traffic at the Mattituck location is barely noticeable — at least to me, and I work just a few blocks away.

When reached this week, Vince Taldone, a Riverhead resident who serves as president of the Flanders, Riverside & Northampton Community Association, admitted the community has been late in its protest of the 7-Eleven. He said the delayed reaction was due, in part, to the fact that the 7-Eleven crept up quietly, eventually supplanting the original plan for a mom-and-pop market, which most residents were expecting at that location.

Many of the people who have come to him and the community association recently with concerns, he said, fear the store will become a pickup place for migrant workers headed farther east. But he doesn’t see that happening, mainly because the Flanders store isn’t in a central location like with the Southampton 7-Eleven, which served as a hiring hall for years.

He thinks a real concern, however, is safety in that area of Flanders Road — for both vehicles and pedestrians.

“There’s a constant flow of cars moving fast, and you’ll have people turning into the parking lot at a pretty fast clip,” Mr. Taldone said. “This would be high-volume and it’s going to be tricky for cars getting in and out. Although it’s legal and meets the zoning, we really question the wisdom of a 7-Eleven on this corner.”

But at the same time, he said, Flanders and Riverside residents have been pushing for years for more commercial development in the hamlets to ease the residential tax burden. While 7-Eleven isn’t exactly Whole Foods, it’s something new and shiny along a corridor that at times looks like a place time forgot. Mr. Taldone speculated that the overall resistance to 7-Elevens everywhere might have been what led the company to choose the tiny corner plot far away from other commercial areas in the first place.

He suspects too that, in the end, people will likely be satisfied with the store’s convenience and other benefits.

“It’s a commercial building; it will pay a substantial amount of taxes to the school district,” he said. “People won’t have to drive to Hampton Bays or Riverhead. If we had known from the start it was going to be a 7-Eleven, maybe we would have pushed for a different intersection. But it serves its purpose; if you need a quart of milk on a Sunday night, there it is, and you’re a customer.

“It’s a running joke,” he continued, that “everyone hates a 7-Eleven until you need one.”

To underscore his point, think back to what was perhaps the loudest protest in recent decades against an East End 7-Eleven — in the Village of Sag Harbor. That store eventually opened on Water Street, right in the heart of the historic business district. Its owner was later elected mayor.

The company’s slogan isn’t “Oh, thank Heaven” for nothing.

Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.

06/24/13 5:00pm

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The 7-Eleven store in Cutchogue is now looking for new employees.

In the aftermath of last week’s federal seizure of a pair of North Fork 7-Elevens, many local customers have been asking the question, “What happened to the store’s former employees?”

Federal immigration authorities said that while the 7-Eleven raids were focused on the owners and managers of the raided stores — including the franchises in Greenport and Cutchogue — 20 workers were taken into custody for questioning on their immigration status.

Of those workers, 18 were from the New York area, while the remaining two are from Virginia, said U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement public affairs officer Khaalid Walls.

Authorities are still evaluating the workers’ cases and have not reached any conclusions in their cases, Mr. Walls said, adding that the government is focused on effective immigration enforcement that “prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators.”

“ICE is evaluating each case to determine eligibility for prosecutorial discretion as appropriate to focus resources on the agency’s stated priorities,” Mr. Walls said. “Such decisions are based on the merits of each case, the factual information provided to the agency and the totality of individuals’ circumstances.”

The Cutchogue and Greenport 7-Elevens are currently in the process of  hiring new staffers. “Now hiring” fliers and employment applications have been on display in the stores since last week’s raids.

The eight people arrested for their role in the illegal 7-Eleven operations all pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail, a U.S. Attorney spokesman said.  Azhar Zia, the final defendant indicted for his role in the scheme, remains at large, officials said.

[email protected]

06/18/13 2:31pm

It was business as usual at the Cutchogue 7-Eleven Tuesday morning, where a steady stream of customers entered the store looking for their coffee fix.  There was, however, one notable exception: the employees some customers said they knew on a first name basis were nowhere in sight.

The 7-Eleven was among 10 Long Island locations, including the Greenport store, raided Monday by federal agents as part of a nationwide immigration and identity theft investigation. Eight male and one female 7-Eleven owners and managers were arrested for conspiring to steal the identities of more than 20 citizens, then hiring dozens of illegal immigrants to work at the 10 7-Eleven locations on Long Island and two more in Virginia, federal officials said.

The accused gave the illegal immigrants, who were of Pakistani and Filipino descent, false names to dodge authorities, stole portions of their wages and forced them to live in housing the defendants owned, according to a federal indictment.

Brenden Moschinger, who lives in Southold, said he stops at the Cutchogue 7-Eleven every day on his way to work. Today, he exited the store carrying a tray loaded with a frosted donut, coffee and a large soda.

“It’s kind of sad because they’re all hard workers,” Mr. Moschinger said of the store’s employees. “I guess nobody really knew they were working for almost nothing.”

“I haven’t seen [the owner] in a long time,” he said. “He didn’t seem like he would do that kind of thing, but I guess money gets the better of you sometimes.”

Wendy James, who lives in Cutchogue and has been coming to the store for the past 15 years, described the situation as “really sad.”

“I’m not sure what to think,” Ms. James said. “All these people were kind of our friends. I just wonder if any of the people were legal and if they will be coming back.”

The news also came as a surprise to customers who arrived at the store in Greenport just before it reopened Monday afternoon.

“Wow! That’s interesting,” remarked J.P Groeninger of Bohemia, who was in town to perform at the nearby Shakespeare in the Park. “The staff is always nice to me.”

Bill King of Orient called the news “wild.”

“The staff is pretty nice,” he said. “But I guess a couple of them were undocumented folks. There’s a lot of that around here.”

[email protected]

06/17/13 1:00pm

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Law enforcement officials outside Cutchogue 7-Eleven Monday morning.

Nine people have been arrested as part of a nationwide immigration and identity theft investigation as federal agents seized 7-Eleven stores across Long Island including the stores in Cutchogue and Greenport Monday morning, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The eight men and one woman arrested conspired to steal the identities of more than 20 citizens, then hired dozens of illegal immigrants to work at 14 7-Eleven locations on Long Island and Virginia, federal officials said.

The accused gave the illegal immigrants false names to dodge authorities, stole portions of their wages and forced them to live in housing the defendants owned, according to the statement.

“The defendants used 7-Eleven as a platform from which to run an elaborate criminal enterprises,” said United States Attorney Loretta Lynch. “In bedroom communities across Long Island and Virginia, the defendants not only systematically employed illegal immigrants, but concealed their crimes by raiding the cradle and the grave to steal the identities of children and even the dead. Finally, these defendants ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses, in effect creating a modern day plantation system.”

Farrukh Baig, 57, and Bushra Baig, 49, a married Head of the Harbor couple who operated 12 of the 7-Eleven stores, were among those arrested in the scheme, officials said.

Mr. Baig, who did not answer cell phone calls from a Suffolk Times reporter Monday, owned the 7-Eleven franchises in Greenport and Cutchogue, which were seized Monday morning by federal authorities. The stores will soon re-open and will be operated by the 7-Eleven corporation, federal officials said. As of 5:30 p.m. the Greenport store had reopened, but the parking lot of the Cutchogue location was still closed off by police tape.

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The 7-Eleven store in Greenport remained closed at 1 p.m. Monday.

Mr. Baig’s brothers — Zahid Baig, 52, of Chesapeake, Va. and Shannawaz Baig, 62, of Virginia Beach, Va. — along with co-defendants Malik Yousaf, 51, of South Setauket, Tariq Rana, 34, of Chesapeake, Va. and Ramon Nanas, 49, of Great River, helped to “manage and control the stores,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition, 49-year-old Azhar Zia of Great River and 48-year-old Ummar Uppal of Islip Terrace, were indicted separately as owners of two other 7-Eleven locations in Suffolk County.

Since 2000, the nine arrested “collectively and systematically employed” more than 50 illegal immigrants from Pakistan and the Philippines at the various 7-Eleven franchises, federal officials said.

The defendants stole 25 identities — with victims ranging in age from 8 to 78 years old, including three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet — which they then passed off onto the illegal immigrants working in their stores, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Farrukh and Bushra Baig even allowed employees to use their own personal social security numbers in some instances, officials said.

The Baigs then submitted this false information to 7-Eleven corporate headquarters, which issued wages to the illegal immigrants, prosecutors said. But the nine defendants took “significant portions” of the immigrants wages, which were always paid in cash, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. The local employees would make between $350 and $500 per week and would also have to pay rent back to the Baigs from that money, prosecutors said.

Ms. Lynch said money earned from the scheme was used by the Baigs to purchase large homes and was mostly kept in the family. Federal agents answered the door at Farrukh and Bushra Baig’s house in Head of the Harbor Minday, where they are continuing to investigate. Farrukh Baig purchased the Head of the Harbor house for $1.75 million in 2004, property records show.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Federal agents are continuing to investigate at this Head of the Harbor house, where they say Farrukh and Bushra Baig live.

Employees worked 100 or more hours per week in some instances, but were only paid for as little as 25 hours in a week, prosecutors said.

Eighteen foreign nationals were also taken into custody today for immigration purposes.

“The defendants have been exploiting vulnerable individuals who, due to their immigration status, may have been afraid to come forward and report possible wrongdoing by their employers,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber. “This multi-agency investigation illustrates our commitment to fighting against employers who abuse immigrant employees for their own financial gain.”

The nine defendants will be arraigned in federal court in Central Islip Monday, federal officials said.

If convicted, the defendants face 20 years in prison for wire fraud conspiracy and alien harboring charges, as well as multiple counts of aggravated identity theft, each of which carries a mandatory, consecutive two-year sentence, prosecutors said.

The investigation is ongoing and investigators are currently looking at 40 more stores across the country, federal officials said. Investigators are also looking into how information on the stolen identities was gathered.  The investigation began in 2010 and some employees complained to Suffolk Police about the working conditions at area 7-Elevens back in 2011, law enforcement officials said.

“[It was] a decidedly un-American practice,” Ms. Lynch said.

7-Eleven offered the following statement Monday afternoon: “Today the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn announced it had filed two indictments related to alleged wrongdoing by independent 7-Eleven franchisees. 7-Eleven, Inc. has cooperated with the government’s investigation. All of our franchise owners must operate their stores in accordance with laws and the 7-Eleven franchise agreement. 7-Eleven, Inc. will take aggressive actions to audit the employment status of all its franchisees’ employees. 7-Eleven, Inc. is taking steps to assume corporate operation of the stores involved in this action so we can continue to serve our guests. We continue to cooperate with federal authorities in this matter.”

But Ms. Lynch said the company did little to stop the scheme.

“7-Eleven made little to no effort to secure integrity of their payroll system,” Ms. Lynch said. She said one of the identities was clocked in at stores in New York and Virginia at the same time and date.

One unit at Driftwood Cove in Greenport, one block from Mr. Baig’s Greenport store, was used to harbor illegal immigrants, according to the federal indictment. Nobody came to the door when a reporter knocked Monday morning.

Southold Town property records show Mr. Baig also owns a house less than a quarter mile from the Cutchogue store, which he bought for $75,000 in 1998. Nobody came to the door when a reporter knocked there as well.

[email protected]