A Georgia state senator running for reelection as a farmer who wants to “plow the field for a brighter future” has routinely hired a family of farm labor contractors who have a history of labor violations and are linked to a human trafficking investigation known as Operation Blooming Onion.
Sen. Russ Goodman, R-Cogdell, who took office last year and is secretary of the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, has relied on the contractors to provide seasonal foreign workers to pick blueberries on the more than 600-acre farm he owns with his father-in-law. A seventh-generation farmer, Goodman markets himself as “a patriotic American” who promotes family farm and small-business policies that keep local young people from leaving the area.
“I want kids in Adel, Homerville, Valdosta, Quitman and all across South Georgia to be able to stay, build a career, and raise their families,” he said on the website for his 2020 campaign.
Over the past nine years, Cogdell Berry Farm — Goodman’s family farm — has hired Emilia Alvarez, her son Luis Antonio Alvarez and her husband, Jesus Alvarez, to bring workers up from south of the border on H-2A visas. The visas are designed to backfill agricultural jobs farms can’t find locals to do.
Federal authorities searched the Alvarezes’ home addresses and confiscated $16,460 during the Blooming Onion investigation, one of the largest criminal cases ever prosecuted concerning labor trafficking of foreign farmworkers. The family, which has provided workers to several farms, was not indicted in the case.
Goodman told USA TODAY in an email that he wasn’t aware of the connection and had never witnessed or heard anything that would indicate there were any issues with the farm’s labor contractors. He said he intended to investigate.
“Our family farm has spent $4,235,293 on harvest costs in recent years, probably 10 times as much as a similar operation in Mexico, because we do things the right way,” he said.
Operation Blooming Onion underscores some of the ways the contracting system can insulate farmers from labor abuse claims: If the contractors function as legal employers, farmers may not be aware of wrongdoing — or it can be easier for them to deny any knowledge of wrongdoing.
The federal investigation has led to the indictments of 28 people, and four have pleaded guilty. Most of the defendants are contractors or their associates; only one appears to be a farmer: Charles Michael King of Kings Berry Farm.
Operation Blooming Onion: Federal indictment reveals ‘modern-day-slavery’ in Georgia
The largest indictment was filed in the U.S. Southern District Court of Georgia in October 2021. It charged two dozen people with conspiracy to engage in forced labor and related crimes and said defendants threatened workers and forced them to pay illegal fees to obtain jobs, work for little or no pay and live in unsanitary conditions. The case is ongoing.
Although the Alvarezes were not charged in the recent federal case, Emilia and Jesus have been cited in the past for labor violations by the U.S. Department of Labor. Jesus Alvarez also owed $1.7 million in unpaid income taxes over nine years, according to notices of federal tax liens.
Those violations include a case involving guest workers brought to work on the senator’s family farm in 2015. Emilia Alvarez was suspended from the guest-worker program after federal inspectors cited her, alleging labor violations that included underpaying the workers by nearly $150,000. Alvarez agreed to be suspended from the program for three years and pay $148,041 in back wages and $112,600 in fines.
The case against Emilia Alvarez includes no indication that Cogdell Berry Farm was cited.
The federal labor department also had cited Jesus Alvarez in 2012, alleging he owed back wages to a worker, used the services of an unregistered farm labor contractor and failed to obtain insurance for transportation vehicles. Those violations concerned workers employed by Alvarez to work at other farms.
After Emilia Alvarez was cited, Goodman’s family farm started to turn to her son and husband to petition for the H-2A workers it needed.
Blueberries are the main crop harvested by the guest farmworkers at Cogdell Berry Farm in rural Clinch County, but the family has also produced cattle, pecans and timber. Blueberries are a labor-intensive crop that has expanded in Georgia — a state previously known mostly for peaches and sweet Vidalia onions. Goodman has said his farm turned to the crop two decades ago because the health benefits from the fruit “were really making the news.”
Goodman’s home and farm are surrounded by large expanses of woodlands in Southern Georgia — far closer to Jacksonville, Florida, than to Atlanta. Amid the blueberry fields stand an abandoned building with a rusting sign reading “Cogdell Store,” a warehouse-style structure, silos and a bunkhouse approved to house 56 migrant workers. Recently, clothes hung on a clothesline near a mobile home.
In 2016, when Georgia farmers denounced federal authorities for being slow to allow guest workers into the U.S., Goodman spoke out. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he had requested 500 workers but only 30 had arrived, leading to losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I don’t know whether to crawl in a hole and hide in the fetal position or come out with a sword,” Goodman told the newspaper. “I’m between those two emotions.”
His farm had hired Emilia Alvarez to bring in those workers.
Goodman, who easily beat his Democratic challenger in the 2020 Senate race, is running unopposed on Nov. 8. He characterizes Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife on social media as good friends and mentions that Kemp stayed overnight at his farmhouse.
Kemp appointed Goodman a Senate floor leader right after he was elected. The governor also posed for photos for his own campaign ads wearing a T-shirt with the name Cogdell Cattle Company, owned by Goodman’s wife.
Kemp’s wife was appointed by her husband as co-chair of a commission to fight human trafficking.
No one from Kemp’s staff or campaign responded to repeated attempts to reach the incumbent for comment.
Goodman said his operation spends a “huge amount of money” to meet or exceed requirements of the guest-worker program, food safety and pesticide reporting, and other rules set by government agencies and retailers, including social responsibility audits.
“We have many workers who come back year after year to help us on our family farm and we have gone above and beyond in looking after their welfare,” he wrote in an email.
He said he had heard of the Blooming Onion case but didn’t know of any connections to himself or his farm.
“Rest assured we will not do business with any person or entity you’ve alleged within your email if those allegations are proven to be true and have not been remediated to the satisfaction of the United States Department of Labor and the Georgia Department of Labor and my family,” he said.
Emilia, Jesus and Luis Alvarez didn’t respond to phone calls, emails, text messages and certified letters asking for interviews.
The guest farmworker program requires that farmers and contractors abide by certain rules to bring foreigners to work temporarily on U.S. farms, a process that includes applying through petitions that must be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State.
Only those who intend to employ the workers can file the petitions. Employers and recruiters are banned from asking workers to pay fees to get a job. They can require the recruits to pay some costs upfront, such as travel expenses, but those costs must be reimbursed. To protect local workers’ wages, employers also have to pay a minimum wage that varies depending on the location of the farm — $11.99 an hour in Georgia this year.
One letter signed by Goodman and his father-in-law states that they intended to employ Luis Alvarez to use about 200 of his workers for 3½ months in 2018, primarily to harvest berries by hand and machine.
“They will also be pulling weeds, hoeing, raking, cleaning areas around the farms and buildings,” the letter said. “They will be working behind the blueberry harvester to off load and stack lugs of blueberries.”
Workers should have “verifiable farm experience,” the letter added: “All these jobs will be done under extreme sunlight with stooping, bending and heavy lifting required of the workers.”
One woman recounted her experience trying to bring guest farmworkers to Goodman’s farm several years later — and becoming a farm labor contractor on the fly.
Martha Marmulejo Herrera identifies herself on Facebook as a hotel cleaner. She told USA TODAY she had no experience in labor contracting when an acquaintance, Rosalba Gonzalez, persuaded her last year to file a petition for guest farmworkers destined for Cogdell Berry Farm.
Early that year, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor had begun the process of rejecting a petition by Luis Alvarez to bring guest farmworkers to the senator’s farm because Alvarez had requested workers nearly year-round for the site, which is not allowed by the program regulations.
Marmulejo Herrera said Gonzalez, a hotel co-worker, told her she could make a lot of money. She said Gonzalez told her that when workers arrived, she shouldn’t talk with them. She would just need to sit inside a truck and stay quiet.
When Marmulejo Herrera filed the petition, which would have required a copy of the work contract between her and the farm, she said she hadn’t yet met anyone representing the farm. In August, when she talked with USA TODAY, she said she still didn’t know who the owners were.
Before the workers were to arrive, the farm canceled the contract, Marmulejo Herrera said, because a freeze had hit the blueberry crop. Then she started hearing from people from Mexico who complained they had paid $1,000 or $1,500 to come work on the farm, money they were now out because the contract was cancelled.
Marmulejo Hererra said that was her first indication workers had been charged, and she said Gonzalez was the person who charged them.
Gonzalez acknowledged that she knew “a Martha” but said she never persuaded her, coordinated with her to petition workers or to charge them. She said Martha had told her she was going to petition guest farmworkers.
Goodman noted that Marmulejo Herrera holds a Farm Labor Contractor Certificate of Registration, a certificate required to act as a farm labor contractor.
Relatives of a central defendant in the Blooming Onion investigation played a role in the petitions filed to bring guest farmworkers to the senator’s family farm.
Maria Leticia Patricio was hired to prepare petitions requesting federal government approval for thousands of H-2A farmworkers on behalf of numerous contractors and farmers. Prosecutors accuse her of filing fraudulent petitions and helping subject workers to forced labor.
Her son Daniel Mendoza, who also filed guest-worker petitions, is also indicted. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Patricio’s brother is former Georgia State Monitor Advocate Jorge Gomez, who was in charge of protecting migrant farmworkers. Gomez has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.
A USA TODAY Network investigation revealed that several Patricio family members who filed guest-worker petitions on behalf of employers had connections to the case. Those included Graciela Gomez, who is Patricio’s niece and Gomez’s daughter.
Emilia, Luis and Jesus Alvarez relied on some of Patricio’s relatives for help with their guest-worker petitions.
As part of their petitions, employers need to guarantee that workers will have access to kitchen facilities or will be provided meals at a low cost. Patricio’s husband, whom the indictment accuses of executing a money-laundering transaction, stated in a document included in a 2016 guest-worker petition that Emilia Alvarez had hired his restaurant to provide three meals a day for workers requested for Cogdell Berry Farm and another farm.
The Alvarezes also used three of Patricio’s family members to file petitions for guest workers for Cogdell Berry Farm: Graciela Gomez, Monica Saavedra and Laura Gomez-Morales. All three women had their homes searched or money confiscated as a result of the investigation. None were indicted.
Saavedra was temporarily banned from filing petitions in 2017 for violations, which included failing to first try to recruit U.S. workers as an agent for a contractor who was also debarred. She prepared the payroll for workers Emilia Alvarez brought to Cogdell Berry Farm in 2015, according to a deposition Alvarez gave in the case concerning her underpayment of blueberry pickers at the farm.
In 2019, Jorge Gomez intervened to speed up the processing of at least one of the petitions for workers at the senator’s farm.
Federal agent testifies: Farm labor traffickers bribed Georgia government employees
Gomez had told USA TODAY he didn’t supervise Georgia Labor Department housing inspectors and recused himself from tasks concerning his family’s clients.
Yet an email thread obtained through a public records request for hundreds of pages of petition records shows that when another of his sisters, Laura Gomez-Morales, filed a petition on behalf of Emilia Alvarez for workers at Cogdell Berry Farm, Jorge Gomez stepped in.
When a federal Labor Department officer sent an email asking for clarification, he sent a message to a Georgia Labor Department housing inspector: “Brenda please review and respond asap.”
The inspector got back to him immediately.
Gomez told the USA TODAY Network that he was tasked with contacting housing inspectors if they needed to address issues arising in emails about processing the guest-worker petitions. He said that information is time-sensitive and that inspectors, who may be in the field, are expected to respond quickly.
He said he did the same for petitions coming from all employers, regardless of whether they were his family’s clients. He reiterated that he didn’t supervise employees and only provided guidance: “I was the most senior housing inspector; they were looking up to me for recommendations.”
Georgia Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said the department does not know if Gomez was instructed to contact housing inspectors when they didn’t respond to emails. She said it’s common practice to include the State Monitor Advocate in emails but didn’t elaborate on why. She said that Gomez didn’t have any supervisory role on housing inspectors that he “was making sure that a response was sent,” and didn’t tell the inspector how to respond.
Guest farmworker employers are required to provide free housing, which generally must pass inspection by the Georgia Department of Labor before petitions are approved. Housing can be a significant cost for employers, and Blooming Onion prosecutors said in an indictment that some defendants had forced workers to live in cramped and unsanitary trailers.
At least two defendants had assured federal authorities they would house workers in hotels — which typically do not require a labor department inspection — but then, according to court records, housed them in unapproved barracks or trailers instead.
In petitions for workers for Cogdell and two other farms, the Alvarez family listed two of the same hotels as several of the Operation Blooming Onion defendants. One was a motel overbooked by various guest-worker petitioners.
During overlapping periods in 2019, Emilia Alvarez and several other employers reported that together they had booked more than 166 rooms at the Comfortel Suites in Douglas – a motel with only 100 rooms according to its Facebook page. That year, Alvarez was required to look for a different motel, according to the case file, in which a Georgia labor department officer reports that the motel, located by U.S. Route 441 that divides Douglas in two, was overbooked.
The following year several employers, including Jesus Alvarez, again included in their petitions bookings for more rooms than the hotel had available.
No Comfortel Suites’ manager or owner responded to requests for comment. Ravi Parmar, who manages a motel in Jesup that Emilia Alvarez also listed as worker housing, said his motel has never housed migrant farmworkers.
Another hotel in Douglas, 3 miles south on the same road as the Comfortel Suites, was listed in petitions from the Alvarez family as having enough beds to house four workers per room, each with their own bed. The hotel’s website said that its rooms have one or two beds and that no extra beds would be provided.
Goodman didn’t address the motel arrangements in his response.
Goodman’s identity as a farmer has been a cornerstone of his campaigns. He also has spoken on social media about how his farm and others create U.S. jobs.
“Today is National Blueberry Day! I’m thankful to be apart (sic) of Georgia’s 3/4 of billion dollar industry that is a $5 billion dollar industry across the country creating over 44,000 full time American jobs,” he posted on Facebook in July 2021.
Even before his first election, Goodman was politically active. He served as campaign chairman — in south Georgia for Kemp and in his county for U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter and former Gov. Sonny Perdue, according to Goodman’s campaign website.
He also has lobbied for the interests of blueberry farmers.
In 2020, he testified before the Office of the United States Trade Representative, saying Mexican blueberry imports are unfair competition in part because U.S. farmers were required to pay higher wages. Mexican farms pay workers on average less than $1 an hour, he said, while the H-2A regulations require an hourly wage rate of nearly $12.
“It is hypocritical of us as Americans and the American government to expect the American farmer to grow our produce under certain labor and environmental regulations and then allow the free importation of foreign grown produce that isn’t grown with the same set of standards,” he said. “I’m a believer in free markets, the problem is we have a free market on the sales side, but not the cost.”
Maria Perez is a reporter on USA TODAY’s national investigations team. She can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @mariajpsl. Abraham Kenmore is the statewide reporter with the Gannett Georgia Go Team. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @twiterlessabe. Drew Favakeh is a public safety reporter at the Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @drewfav.