‘Beyond troubling’: Current, former government officials tied to human trafficking probe in Georgia

Two Georgia labor officials whose jobs involved protecting or advocating for farmworkers have links to one of the largest U.S. human trafficking cases ever prosecuted involving foreign agricultural laborers brought here on seasonal visas.

One individual indicted in the case, Brett Donovan Bussey, left government service in 2018. The other, Jorge Gomez, remains on the job and hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, but officers searched his home in connection with the case and his sister and nephew are among those indicted.

In October, a grand jury indicted Bussey and 23 others for conspiring to engage in forced labor and other related crimes. Federal prosecutors say the defendants required guest farmworkers to pay illegal fees to obtain jobs, withheld their IDs so they could not leave, made them work for little or no pay, housed them in unsanitary conditions and threatened them with deportation and violence.

Two workers died in the heat, according to the indictment. Court records say five workers were kidnapped and one of them was raped.

All defendants who have entered pleas so far have pleaded not guilty in the case, named “Operation Blooming Onion.” Some of the workers harvested onions, the state’s official vegetable.

Photo showing Mexican passports and money included as an exhibit in a criminal case stemming from the Blooming Onion investigation.
Photo showing Mexican passports and money included as an exhibit in a criminal case stemming from the Blooming Onion investigation.

The indictment doesn’t mention the links to the Georgia government, information USA TODAY, the Savannah Morning News and the Augusta Chronicle pieced together from public records and a review of social media posts.

Labor advocates have questioned how the trafficking scheme described in the indictment could have continued so long – at least since 2015. The government connections raise additional questions about potential conflicts of interest and who is put in charge of protecting vulnerable workers.

“It’s beyond troubling,” said Shelly Anand, a former U.S. Department of Labor lawyer and co-founder of Sur Legal Collaborative, an Atlanta-area nonprofit that educates workers about their labor rights and helps them file labor complaints.

In Georgia, the federal labor department has primary responsibility for enforcing migrant farmworker labor regulations. But the Georgia Department of Labor still can play a significant role in protecting farmworkers.

The state agency is supposed to report, resolve or refer suspicions of labor violations and help workers resolve or file complaints against their employers – farm labor contractors and farmers. The state also inspects housing that employers of foreign guest workers on seasonal H-2A visas must provide, a key hurdle to obtaining federal authorization to hire guest workers.

Bussey and Gomez both were directly involved in those tasks.

Brett Bussey, a former Georgia Department of Labor employee indicted in a criminal federal case, accused of conspiring to engage in forced labor.
Brett Bussey, a former Georgia Department of Labor employee indicted in a criminal federal case, accused of conspiring to engage in forced labor.
Maria Leticia Patricio, a defendant indicted in a criminal federal case, accused of conspiring to engage in forced labor involving foreign farmworkers. Patricio is the sister of a Georgia labor department official tasked with advocating for farmworkers.
Maria Leticia Patricio, a defendant indicted in a criminal federal case, accused of conspiring to engage in forced labor involving foreign farmworkers. Patricio is the sister of a Georgia labor department official tasked with advocating for farmworkers.

Family members help bring in farmworkers

State Monitor Advocate Gomez is the brother of a central figure indicted in the case, Maria Leticia Patricio. In his state position, Gomez is in charge of advocating for migrant farmworkers and receives a copy of all complaints that migrant farmworkers file against employers to make sure they are handled correctly, including when they need to be referred to outside enforcement agencies.

As part of his job, he has also inspected migrant housing and provides technical assistance to state employees who do those inspections and handle workers’ complaints.

Federal records show several close family members, including Patricio, were hired by labor contractors and farmers to help them bring tens of thousands of guest workers to the U.S. by preparing petitions requesting government authorization to hire them.

In addition, officers seized $5,306 in cash at Gomez’s home, according to a court filing. That filing says the money was seized from his daughter Graciela Gomez, who lives with him and also files guest worker petitions, but Gomez told a USA TODAY Network reporter that about $3,000 belonged to him.

The indictment doesn’t accuse Bussey, Patricio, or her son Daniel Mendoza of charging illegal fees, threatening workers with deportation and violence, or withholding their IDs. Indicted contractors and unnamed conspirators are accused of that. But Patricio is accused of aiding some of them and Mendoza is accused of aiding the kidnapping of four workers.

The home of Jorge Gomez in Douglas, Ga., has a locked gate with a sign alerting to security cameras on the property. Officers seized $5,306 in cash at Gomez’s home, according to a court filing. The filing says the money was seized from his daughter Graciela Gomez.
The home of Jorge Gomez in Douglas, Ga., has a locked gate with a sign alerting to security cameras on the property. Officers seized $5,306 in cash at Gomez’s home, according to a court filing. The filing says the money was seized from his daughter Graciela Gomez.
More than $7,500 was seized from the home of Maria Leticia Patricio in Nicholls, Ga.
More than $7,500 was seized from the home of Maria Leticia Patricio in Nicholls, Ga.

Prosecutors also accuse Patricio and Mendoza of filing fraudulent petitions. Until 2017, Patricio was the registered agent of a company that Gomez’s daughter, Graciela Gomez, used to file petitions.

Gomez’s daughter was not indicted nor were at least two other family members, a sister and a niece, whose homes were searched or who had property confiscated in connection with the case.

The indictment says Patricio and other members of the alleged conspiracy profited more than $200 million with their scheme, but Patricio herself doesn’t seem to lead a wealthy lifestyle. The address she used to file the petitions is a rented mobile home located off a road next to the woods, according to Coffee County Assessor's information. The place is also the address of a radio station on which she hosted a broadcast of Mexican music.

The addresses linked to Patricio and several other family members are small mobile homes on the same dirt road near Douglas, a county seat of fewer than 12,000 residents in southern Georgia. In contrast, Gomez’s home is a 2,200-square-foot, single-family home on two acres, with a locked gate. A sign of “No trespassing” on a tree says security cameras are in use. Zillow puts its value at $195,100.

Douglas, Ga.
Douglas, Ga.
Downtown Douglas, Ga.
Downtown Douglas, Ga.

Gomez said he never did anything wrong and that he has never been reprimanded for not fulfilling his duties. He also said he plans to retire this summer.

“My family members’ business with employers has not affected my work for the state in any way,” he said in a written response. During his nearly 20 years with the department, he added, “I do believe I have done a good job advocating and protecting farmworkers.”

Patricio and Mendoza have pleaded not guilty.

Bussey, who was released from detention on a $50,000 bond, used to inspect housing for the Georgia Department of Labor as an agricultural specialist, a job he left in 2018. Federal prosecutors accuse him of witness tampering and filing fraudulent petitions requesting authorization to hire guest farmworkers on behalf of employers after leaving the government.

He also has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer said Bussey declined to comment.

The volume of H-2A guest worker petitions connected to each of the labor officials was significant.

Employers relied on Jorge Gomez’s relatives to file petitions for more than 1 in 5 Georgia-based guest farmworker positions – over 40,000 positions in all – greenlit by the U.S. Department of Labor from 2015 through 2021, according to federal data.

During the same timeframe, Bussey filed applications for nearly 3,800 approved workers in Georgia – 2% of the statewide total. Another application preparer, Inez Strickland – who has not been indicted but has links to Bussey and the case – filed applications for more than 12,500 approved positions, about 7%.

Prosecutors seized $10,500 at an address that Strickland used for her business on the petitions she filed. Her company is the registered agent for the business Bussey used to file petitions. Strickland also used to work for the state Department of Labor, at least in 2011, and for the Georgia Department of Education until 2016, including for the Migrant Education Program.

Nopalito Road in Nicholls, Ga., is a dirt road with at least four homes linked to Patricio and other family members.
Nopalito Road in Nicholls, Ga., is a dirt road with at least four homes linked to Patricio and other family members.

Gomez said he notified the Georgia Department of Labor that his sister, Patricio, and his daughter prepared petitions to request guest workers for employers and that to avoid conflicts of interest, he recused himself from tasks and decisions if they affected any of his family members’ clients.

He said he did participate in outreach activities tied to those employers’ workers, listening but not acting. He also received copies of all forms describing potential violations and complaints, no matter which employer was involved.

Dawson Morton, a labor lawyer who used to represent farmworkers in Georgia, said that part of the Georgia labor department’s job is to protect domestic workers and, if Gomez’s family members had a financial interest in importing foreign workers and paying them the lowest wages, that “creates a conflict of interest.”

Help USA TODAY investigate abuse of seasonal farmworkers

The USA TODAY Network is reporting on what made the abuse of guest farmworkers in Georgia possible and who profited from it. If you are a worker who suffered abuse or know of one, or if you have any information about potential misconduct by public employees or others, we want to hear from you. We will not use your information without your permission. Contact Investigative Reporter Maria Perez: maria.perez@usatoday.com. Ella habla español.

Maria Leticia Patricio, her indicted son Daniel Mendoza, and several relatives of Jorge Gomez who have prepared guest worker applications but aren’t indicted, declined to comment on the record or didn’t return phone calls, emails and letters.

Graciela Gomez said in an email that she works alone and doesn’t discuss her business with her father.

“Many of my clients/farmers don’t even know Jorge Gomez is my father,”  she wrote. “I like to keep it that way. For this reason.”

She said she doesn’t know what happens after the workers arrive.

“I have nothing to do with what other people do with their business,” she wrote. “All I do is paperwork to get the (farm labor contractors) or (f)armers certified and approved for the H2A program. I don’t step foot on the farm at all.”

Jorge Gomez’s sister Laura Gomez-Morales – who also prepared guest worker petitions but is not named in Operation Blooming Onion – said in written responses that officers searched her home, too, but didn’t tell her why. She said her business was separate from that of Patricio and that she never asked Jorge Gomez to do any favors for her clients.

“The petitions I filed,” she said, “I never spoke to him about them, informed him, never asked him to do anything.”

The Georgia Department of Labor didn’t respond to questions about the procedures followed for Gomez to avoid potential conflicts of interest, or about specifics of Gomez and Bussey’s duties in the department. Agency spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright sent a statement saying the department declined to comment on the ongoing investigation into Operation Blooming Onion.

Egan Reich, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, which audits the federally-funded monitor advocate program, said the agency can’t comment about active investigations or broader law enforcement matters.

Bethany Whetzel, general counsel at the Office of the Georgia Inspector General told a USA TODAY Network reporter that, in 2018, the inspector general for the federal labor department requested information about Jorge Gomez, which was provided. Whetzel said the office hasn’t been informed of the status of the federal investigation but believes it is pending.

The Office of the  Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Labor said the office could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation beyond what’s available on their site, per department policy. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Greg Gilluly Jr., one of the prosecutors in Operation Blooming Onion, also would not discuss the reporters’ findings. However, he did not discount the possibility of bringing charges against more people.

“We're continuing to investigate, and my goal is always to dismantle the organization,” said Gilluly. “So it's certainly possible that we would bring additional charges against other individuals in the future.”

A competitor accuses Gomez of strong-arming employers

The position of the state monitor advocate was created by federal regulations as a result of a lawsuit. The NAACP and other advocates had argued that farmworkers were systematically discriminated against by state employment agencies.

From the get-go, experts involved in that lawsuit questioned how employees hired by the states could handle complaints fairly and independently when they involved co-workers, bosses, or even farmers who could be part of their own social circle. 

Anand, the former federal labor department lawyer, said Jorge Gomez handling complaints against employers while two of his family members are accused of helping corrupt farm labor contractors is the kind of thing that makes workers lose faith in the complaint system.

“When we have so many problems as we do in Georgia, we need someone who has no connections to individuals who could potentially be perpetrating violations,” she said.

The Georgia Department of Labor should have created a foolproof system to avoid conflicts of interest that do not depend on Jorge Gomez’s word, she said.

At least one person has raised questions about Gomez’s family’s relationship with guest worker employers. That was the husband of Inez Strickland, the petition preparer connected to Bussey and competitor of Gomez’s family members.

In 2018, Stephen Strickland sent a letter to Rep. Earl Leroy "Buddy" Carter, who represents a large portion of southeastern Georgia, saying he had received information that indicated Gomez was improperly using his position to solicit business for his daughter’s company – which the letter suggested actually was run by Jorge Gomez – including from Inez Strickland’s clients.

Reached by phone, one of the employers named by Strickland told a USA TODAY Network reporter that during a field visit Jorge Gomez made in his official capacity Gomez told the employer that Graciela Gomez prepared applications for guest workers, suggesting the employer could do business with her.

“He said that his daughter was doing paperwork, an application like those that Inez did,” said Remigio Morales, who has worked as a farm labor contractor.

Gomez said he remembers that Morales once told him that guest workers for whom he had applied to get visas hadn’t arrived. If asked, he added, he usually provided names of guest worker petition preparers but always made sure to not only mention his daughter. He said he stopped doing that and now just tells those who ask to look it up online.

Gomez denies the accusations in Strickland’s letter. Two other employers named by Strickland also denied his account of their interactions with Gomez. Graciela Gomez said that her father has nothing to do with her business, has never solicited work for her or referred any clients to her.

Elizabeth de Janes, counsel for the Georgia Department of Labor, said that the department started a human resources investigation but ultimately referred Strickland’s complaint to law enforcement due to an apparent lack of cooperation from the complainant. The complaint was also sent to the federal labor department, which did not respond to questions from USA TODAY Network reporters about whether the department opened an investigation.

Through her lawyer, Inez Strickland declined to comment about her connections to the Blooming Onion case and to Bussey.

A long record of labor violations

Farmworkers’ lawyers and advocates have long denounced labor abuses suffered by seasonal guest farmworkers, including by Georgia contractors or farmers. Some of those cases have links to Operation Blooming Onion.

In one litigated in civil court, guest farmworkers sued a Georgia contractor for labor trafficking saying that he charged them illegal fees, threatened them with deportation, failed to pay wages and abandoned them in unsanitary housing with no drinkable water and little food. Inez Strickland filed the paperwork for that contractor. She also reported the violations to Bussey when he worked for the Georgia Department of Labor.

A recent investigation by USA TODAY and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also exposed labor violations suffered by guest farmworkers employed by contractors. 

It focused on a 24-year-old guest worker who died of heatstroke after picking tomatoes in Georgia. Gomez’s daughter, Graciela, filed the paperwork for the contractor who employed him and then, after the contractor was temporarily suspended from bringing more workers due to labor violations, she filed two other petitions on behalf of his wife’s newly created company.

The scale of those cases is eclipsed by Operation Blooming Onion. Last November, prosecutors announced the indictment that accuses Patricio – Gomez’s sister – Bussey and 22 others – mostly farm labor contractors or others associated with them – of conspiring to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and to exploit workers. 

One of the defendants was dismissed after prosecutors learned he had been murdered – beheaded – in Mexico in 2019. 

The indictment said workers were charged illegal fees for the opportunity to work in the U.S., a practice that can drive workers into debt and make them more reluctant to report abuse for fear that they will lose their U.S. jobs and, with them, the ability to repay debts.

Several workers were forced to dig onions with their bare hands and were threatened with a gun, according to the indictment.

Others, the indictment said, were required to work in restaurants and at golf clubs – which violates their visa regulations – or, if they paid extra, were allowed to leave without having to work in the fields.

The indictment also alleges defendants obtained fraudulent signatures and fake documents for purported U.S. employers to submit fraudulent guest worker petitions, and identifies six petitions allegedly sent by Patricio or Bussey in violation of mail fraud laws.

Recent federal criminal cases connected to Operation Blooming Onion offer some possible insights. 

In one of them, a man named Yordon Velazquez (spelled “Yordan Velasquez” in some documents) admitted that he let another man, Aurelio Medina, use his name to request guest farmworkers because Medina was undocumented and not allowed to petition them, according to court records. 

Medina was accused of illegally charging workers to obtain their visas and withholding their identification documents. He pleaded guilty to a federal charge of forced labor and was sentenced last month to 64 months in prison. Velazquez pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

One of the people indicted in the Operation Blooming Onion case, Patricio, filed the guest farmworker petitions on behalf of the company set up by Medina and Velazquez.

Gomez and Bussey cross paths

Jorge Gomez’s family had long worked in the fields. Gomez said his parents were farmworkers who became farm labor contractors. He ran a farm labor contracting business for two decades, according to written responses and personnel files. Gomez said he closed it when he started working for the Georgia Department of Labor in 2003.

Eight years later, Gomez became the state monitor advocate for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

Photo included in the Operation Blooming Onion ongoing criminal case as an exhibit. The partial address provided matches one reported as a guest farmworker housing location.
Photo included in the Operation Blooming Onion ongoing criminal case as an exhibit. The partial address provided matches one reported as a guest farmworker housing location.

In that position, Gomez is supposed to conduct and supervise outreach to inform farmworkers about services and the system to file complaints, in addition to other tasks involving worker complaints and field checks to ensure employers weren’t violating the law. He also trains staff on how to conduct housing inspections.

Gomez said he would learn which employers were his relative’s clients when his family member’s email addresses showed up in email exchanges. In an interview, he said he recused himself from tasks such as inspecting housing, resolving complaints and conducting wage surveys or field checks concerning those employers. He also didn’t assist other labor department employees to inspect housing or handle complaints related to them, he said.

In 2017 or 2018, Gomez said, he stopped determining which labor employee would perform which housing inspections.

As an agricultural specialist, Bussey was among the labor department employees who could request assistance from Gomez for tasks such as handling complaints. In 2018, for example, he consulted with Gomez about what steps to take after receiving a report of possible farmworker labor law violations, according to a report he signed.

In addition to inspecting employee housing, Bussey’s responsibilities encompassed conducting farmworker outreach – including preparing reports about it that could be reviewed by Gomez – performing field checks, notifying employers, managers and/or enforcement agencies when violations occurred and conducting wage surveys, according to his performance reviews.

A home where Brett Bussey lived in Tifton, Ga.
A home where Brett Bussey lived in Tifton, Ga.

Bussey, who speaks Spanish, had started working for the Georgia Department of Labor in 2008. Previously he had worked for a couple of landscaping companies and a large nursery in Douglas, supervising Hispanic employees, according to his personnel file. The resume included in his application for a labor department job said his goal was to pursue a career in horticulture, landscaping, or as a golf course superintendent.  

He remained in the labor department for a decade, until he resigned in 2018. He addressed his resignation letter to both his supervisor and “Jorge” – Jorge Gomez was the only Jorge working at the Georgia Department of Labor that year.

Gomez said he would review Bussey’s outreach monthly reports or provide technical assistance for complaints he received if Bussey requested it, but he said he didn’t supervise Bussey. He wasn’t sure why he would have been mentioned in the resignation letter.

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Both Bussey and Gomez seemed to have struggled economically. Bussey received a default judgment for a credit card debt of nearly $8,000 in 2017 while Gomez’s lawyers said in a 2014 civil court filing that he and his wife were “of very limited modest means, just struggling to get by.” 

Bussey went from making just over $24,000 working for the Georgia labor department in 2011 to $31,602 in 2018, plus about $9,600 in reimbursed travel expenses. Gomez’s salary was $35,660 in 2011 plus more than $12,400 in reimbursements, rising to a salary of $56,656 last year.

In his resignation letter, Bussey said: “I have decided to go into business for myself, where I will be earning considerably more money than I make with the GA Dept. of Labor.”

Gomez said in written responses to USA TODAY Network reporters that his wages when he started to work with the Georgia Department of Labor were very low and he suggested they had not improved much.

“After almost 20 years with the agency,” he said, “I still consider my wages modest and not enough to consider it a comfortable lifestyle.”

Maria Perez is a reporter on USA TODAY’s national investigations team. She can be reached at maria.perez@usatoday.com and on Twitter @mariajpsl. Drew Favakeh is a public safety reporter at the Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com and on Twitter @drewfav. Abraham Kenmore is the statewide reporter with the Gannett Georgia Go Team. He can be reached at akenmore@gannett.com and on Twitter @twiterlessabe.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Georgia labor officials tied to human trafficking probe spark concerns