An Albers construction company that was hit last year with a $1.8 million fine for allegedly bringing in Mexican workers to remove asbestos without safety gear could end up facing criminal charges, according to federal safety officials.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied the fine in August 2015 against Joseph Kehrer and his company, Kehrer Brothers Construction.
Kehrer and the company are contesting the allegations, which means they are now the subject of administrative proceedings before the federal Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission.
But those proceedings have been put on hold, according to Department of Labor spokeswoman Rhonda Burke, because federal prosecutors are conducting an investigation “into possibly pursuing criminal charges against the employer.”
Kehrer’s attorney, Clyde Kuehn of Belleville, said Kehrer strongly disputes OSHA’s allegations.
“The reason these citations are being contested is that there are some very significant disagreements on the facts of this case,” Kuehn said. “OSHA’s position on the facts is much different from Mr. Kehrer’s position. We’re trying to work toward having an opportunity to lay that out.”
Kuehn added: “We have interviewed all of the witnesses and do not understand why they allege that friable asbestos was removed from that building without safety gear. We’re left to wonder what the evidence is on that, and they have not provided discovery to us on what it is.”
We have interviewed all of the witnesses and do not understand why they allege that friable asbestos was removed from that building without safety gear. We’re left to wonder what the evidence is on that, and they have not provided discovery to us on what it is.
Clyde Kuehne, attorney for Joseph Kehrer
Burke, the Department of Labor spokeswoman, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois is conducting an investigation.
“The Department of Labor filed an unopposed motion for a stay of proceedings because the U.S. Attorney made the decision to conduct a criminal investigation,” Burke said. “So right now, the Department of Labor’s allegations against Kehrer are on hold, while the Justice Department finishes their investigation.”
Federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fairview Heights declined to comment.
Kuehn confirmed that federal prosecutors, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are conducting an investigation, but he said it’s not an uncommon occurrence in such cases.
“This is not unique to Joe Kehrer. It’s a common operating procedure,” Kuehn said.
In announcing the fine last year, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels said Kehrer exposed at least eight workers to asbestos in violation of federal health standards, then threatened to fire them if they spoke to safety investigators.
“They spoke no English. He drove them to jobs. He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy,” Michaels said at the time. “This case stands out because of the outrageous behavior of Joseph Kehrer.”
They spoke no English. He drove them to jobs. He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy. This case stands out because of the outrageous behavior of Joseph Kehrer.
OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels
Kehrer had workers removing asbestos-containing materials during renovation of a former school in Okawville, at 301 W. Illinois St. Many of the workers came to the United States to work for Kehrer under a special visa program that allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily, according to OSHA.
Investigators said the workers removed floor tiles, insulation and other materials from the old school, unaware that they were exposed to deadly asbestos fibers. Breathing asbestos fibers can increase the risk of cancer.
The OSHA fine has not yet been paid, due to Kehrer contesting the allegations.
Kuehn said, “We have contested these charges. We have contested them because we have a significantly different view of the facts.”
Metro-east criminal cases involving asbestos
Charlie Powell: In 2007, a federal judge sentenced the 64-year-old Powell, a former East St. Louis City Council member and Democratic Party boss, to 15 months in prison for the illegal removal of asbestos from an abandoned hotel, the Spivey Building, in downtown East St. Louis. Powell owned a demolition company that removed the asbestos in 2002. Powell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the federal Clean Air Act and one count of failing to notify authorities before removing asbestos.
Phil Cohn: In 2005, a federal judge handed a five-year prison sentence to the 42-year-old Cohn — the developer who had hired Powell to remove asbestos from the Spivey Building. Cohn’s sentence covered charges of mail fraud, money laundering and violating the federal Clean Air Act. Cohn, of St. Louis, was accused of improperly removing and disposing of 35 cubic feet of asbestos-containing material before the Spivey Building’s renovation.