Monica Ung was a rising star on the East Bay political scene. She was a player in Oakland's tight-knit Chinatown community, and her construction business, NBC General Contractors, was booming. In the past half decade, she had scored dozens of multi-million-dollar public works projects. But as she stood silently in front of an Alameda County Superior Court judge on Monday, facing dozens of felony fraud charges, it was clear that the forty-nine-year-old would no longer be rubbing elbows with the East Bay's political and business elite. After one of her attorneys entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf, Ung meekly said, "Yes," when the judge asked her if she waived her right to a speedy trial. She then scurried out a side door of the courthouse.
The District Attorney's Office has charged Ung and two of her assistants with stealing millions of dollars from their employees, many of them Chinese immigrants who speak little English. The trio also is accused of defrauding the state's insurance fund and local taxpayers. The total alleged fraud scheme has been estimated to be between $5 million and $20 million, and possibly could be more. One lawyer involved in the case says Ung may have ripped off at least two-hundred of her employees in the last few years by severely underpaying them and then lying about it.
"If you look at the scope of this, it's amazing," said Victor Uno, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, which helped expose Ung's and NBC's alleged fraud. Uno, who also is the president of the Oakland Port Commission, has been informing East Bay political leaders this summer about what NBC General Contractors had been doing and convincing many of them to denounce the company's business practices. "As far as we're concerned," Uno explained, "it's a criminal enterprise."
But the story of Monica Ung is much more than a case of a woman who allegedly tried to defraud her employees and the taxpayers. It's also about public agencies that turned a blind eye to her elaborate scheme when they were supposed to be safeguarding both the public's money and the workers who construct or remodel public buildings. In fact, the City of Oakland still appears to be ignoring its responsibilities.
The city continues to employ Ung's construction company and is paying her millions of dollars in taxpayers' funds to build a $14 million public library in East Oakland even though prosecutors are trying to confiscate her assets and put her behind bars for up to forty years. And because Oakland and other public agencies, including the Peralta Community College District, Oakland Unified School District, and Alameda Unified School District, have yet to conduct their own thorough investigations into what Ung and NBC did and seek restitution for exploited workers, they may ultimately be held liable under state law.
Court records also show that over the past nine months Ung has quietly waged a campaign against Le Cheval Restaurant and is attempting to evict the East Bay institution from its longtime home in downtown Oakland. Le Cheval is one of the most beloved eateries in the region — it's won this newspaper's Best Of the East Bay award twenty-two years running — and has long been a favorite haunt of Oakland politicians and business leaders. Yet according to allegations made in court documents, Ung and her husband, who own the building that houses Le Cheval, have harbored a personal vendetta against the owners and employees of the restaurant for several years and are determined to evict the restaurant.
If Ung is successful in terminating Le Cheval's lease, the restaurant's owners say they would have to lay off more than seventy employees and close their business for several months as they search for a new location. "The practical effect of such a closure would be devastating to the restaurant and those who depend upon it for their livelihood," said Le Cheval general manager and co-owner Lan Tran in a sworn statement to the court.
Ung, who lives in Alamo and owns Oakland property valued at several million dollars, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. She has hired a stable of Bay Area lawyers to preside over her many legal battles. Her defense team is led by former San Francisco Mayor and longtime state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who also did not return a phone call seeking comment. Ung's criminal defense attorney, Fred Remer of Berkeley, also declined comment, saying that his team was still trying to gather all of the facts in the case.
But as Ung marshals her legal defense, the involvement of high-priced liberal lawyers such as Brown is angering the East Bay's labor community. They question why a longtime Democrat like Brown would come to Ung's defense and why he would choose to take lucrative legal fees from her when she allegedly made a fortune, stealing money from immigrant workers. "Willie Brown," Uno said, "is probably being paid with blood money."
State prosecutors are now focusing on Monica Ung because of young men like Ricky Lau. In the spring of 2007, Lau was looking for work after returning from an extended trip to China, when he saw a job posting by NBC General Contractors in a Chinese-language newspaper. The 30-year-old is a certified electrician and noticed that the job paid only $25 an hour — less money than he was used to. But he needed work and figured he would quickly earn a raise once his supervisors saw him in action.
At that point, Lau didn't know much about the concept of "prevailing wage." He had only worked for private contractors and had never before been on a public works project, so he didn't know that under state law electricians and other skilled professionals were supposed to be paid much more than $25 an hour when they worked on public buildings. Originally, the concept was pushed by labor unions that wanted to ensure that low-paying, non-union companies couldn't underbid well-paying, unionized ones and thus get all the public works contracts. But it also was meant to help weed out substandard work and make sure that that construction on public buildings was done by skilled professionals, said Lance Kubo, the lead prosecutor in the case against Ung. "It could have catastrophic consequences if the work on public buildings is not done correctly," Kubo explained.
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