The former owner of the Thatched Cottage catering hall in Centerport, who federal prosecutors say paid immigrant workers substandard wages and threatened them physically, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge of forced labor.
Ralph Colamussi, 64, of Huntington appeared before U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley in Central Islip. He faces up to 20 years in prison, and was ordered to make restitution and pay a fine of up to $250,000.
Colamussi said during the plea that while operating the Thatched Cottage, he employed immigrants from the Philippines and threatened them if they complained about their pay and work.
“I told some of the Filipino nationals that if you leave, life will be much harder for the workers that are left behind," Colamussi said in court.
He also said he forced some of the workers to apply fraudulently for student visas after their short-term H2-B work visa expired.
"I told one Filipino national when her H2-B visa expired that she had to apply for a student visa and keep working for me," he said in court. "She was a good pastry chef and I told her we were opening a restaurant at the end of the month and she couldn't leave the country."
Colamussi and former manager Roberto Villanueva were indicted in December on six counts, including forced labor, fraud in foreign labor contracting, visa fraud and conspiracies to commit forced labor.
Villanueva is to appear in front of Hurley Oct. 5. "My client's intention is to proceed to trial," said Villanueva's attorney, Edward Jenks of Mineola.
Prosecutors have said that from 2008 to 2013, the pair lured workers from the Philippines — where Villanueva is a citizen — to Long Island with promises of lucrative work at the popular wedding and event venue, only to pay them less than what they were promised.
If the workers complained, Colamussi and Villanueva threatened to report them to immigration authorities, hurt them physically and threatened the safety of their families in the Philippines, according to court documents.
Colamussi also said in court that he did not pay the workers "for a six-week period" and when the workers complained, "I told one of them if he continued to complain about not being paid, I would cancel his immigration sponsorship and report him to immigration authorities," Colamussi said. "I told him he would then lose his immigration status and get deported."
Colamussi is due back in court for sentencing on Dec. 7
"There were many factors that paved the way toward today’s plea of guilty; Mr. Colamussi’s failing health was one of them," Colamussi's lawyer, Anthony LaPinta of Hauppauge, said in a statement. "Mr. Colamussi made wrong decisions in a desperate effort to keep his cherished restaurant operating during difficult financial times."
The Thatched Cottage has been closed since 2014 when Huntington officials condemned the property. Colamussi owned the facility for 26 years before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2014.