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Lau said he first noticed that something was hinky about his paycheck and time cards after about six months on the job. He said that his total pay on his checks was correct, but that his pay stubs said he only worked 20 to 25 hours a week when he was actually working 50 to 60. The stubs also said he was making $60 an hour when he was actually being paid $25. "When I asked about it, they told me to just make sure that the amount on the paycheck is correct, and not to worry about anything else," he said.
Then in the spring of 2008, while working on an NBC construction job at Laney College in Oakland, he said he saw a union rep from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The rep, John Be Tao Huang, already knew that NBC was not paying some of its workers the prevailing wage and was trying to interview more of them. But NBC officials were refusing him access to the worksite even though it was public property. "When I got on the jobsite, the superintendent tried to kick me out," Huang said. "He tried to get physical with me because I was going around with the wage sheet for how much the workers were supposed to get paid, and they didn't want the workers to know."
Later, Lau decided to contact Huang, and learned that under state law NBC should have been paying him $60 an hour — not $25. Eventually, Uno contacted Oakland labor attorney Ellyn Moscowitz, who launched her own investigation. And the union decided to alert the state Department of Insurance, noting that NBC was not only seriously underpaying its employees, but also likely engaging in worker's compensation fraud.
Department of Insurance investigator Gladys Rivera then began to investigate NBC's payroll records and uncovered Ung's alleged fraud scheme. According to Rivera's sworn affidavit, the scam went like this: NBC would report to public agencies, such as the City of Oakland or the Oakland Unified School District, that it was paying workers the prevailing wage — such as $50 to $60 an hour, when it was actually paying $20 to $25 or less. At the same time, NBC would report that the workers were only putting in 20 to 25 hours a week, when they were actually working 50 to 60.
That way, neither the agencies nor the workers would get suspicious. The agencies would see that the workers were being paid the prevailing wage, and the workers, like Lau, would see that they're total pay was correct. For example, if Lau worked 60 hours in one week, his pay would be $1,500 (60 hours times $25 an hour). In turn, NBC would submit a separate set of books to the public agency, saying that he only worked 25 hours at $60 an hour — which also works out to $1,500.
Rivera alleged that Ung and two of her assistants, Joey Ruan and Tin Wai Wu, misrepresented NBC's payroll in this way for more than seventy employees on at least twenty-seven different public works projects in the Bay Area between 2003 to 2007. Rivera also said in her affidavit that NBC repeatedly forced workers to put in twelve-hour days, and work six days a week without getting overtime in violation of state law. Because she is a state insurance investigator, Rivera focused her examination on California's worker's compensation fund and said NBC defrauded it by no less than $1.45 million. But she also said in her affidavit that a cursory audit of nineteen employee payroll records at NBC found that Ung had underpaid those workers by at least $3.6 million.
Rivera's investigation ultimately became the basis of the forty-eight felony criminal charges filed against Ung and her two assistants by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. County prosecutors also are attempting to seize Ung's two Oakland properties and her bank accounts to ensure that at least some of her alleged victims are eventually repaid. Along with the Le Cheval building, she owns a building on 9th Avenue. She rents a home in Alamo and is free on bail after posting a $535,000 bond, presumably by putting up one or both of her properties as collateral.
Ung also is facing a class-action lawsuit filed by Oakland labor attorney Moscowitz in which Lau is the lead plaintiff. Moscowitz and her team have conducted their own investigation, and have collected the payroll records of twenty-eight former NBC employees. They estimate that Ung's alleged fraud in the past few years extended to about two hundred workers. Moscowitz estimates that Ung may owe $10 million to $20 million in back wages. State and local governments also have lost out on millions in payroll taxes.
Moscowitz also is going after contractor J.H. Fitzmaurice, which employed NBC as a subcontractor on some of its public works jobs, alleging that the company should have known what Ung was up to. So far, Moscowitz said Fitzmaurice has been cooperative and wants to settle the case.
Moscowitz also shared some of Lau's payroll records with this reporter and his time cards clearly showed that on weeks when he was actually putting in fifty to seventy hours, NBC reported to public agencies that he had worked less than twenty. "What's also upsetting about this is that she was preying on her own — immigrant Asian workers," Moscowitz said. "Many of them don't speak any English, and they didn't have a clue what their legal rights are. And this woman was exploiting them to the nth degree."
Monica Ung's alleged fraud gave her a significant advantage over her competitors. It allowed her to underbid them on public contracts, because her costs were considerably lower than theirs since she wasn't paying the prevailing wage. Moscowitz said that when she began telling other East Bay union contractors that prosecutors wanted to throw Ung in prison, none of them shed any tears. "They were so happy that NBC finally got caught," she said. "They couldn't figure out how NBC was bidding so low."
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