ASHLAND A Flatwoods lawn-care business owner has pleaded guilty in federal court to underpaying his workers, according to court documents.

Michael A. Wheeler, owner of Tri-State Lawn Care, admitted in a plea agreement he intentionally paid his workers less than they were entitled to for their overtime hours.

The company made a similar plea in a connected case.

Wheeler underpaid the workers about $152,000 in overtime, according to his plea agreement document, which was filed in U.S. District Court Friday.

According to the document:

The company was issued 94 visas between 2009 and 2017 to bring in temporary agricultural workers and on the visa applications Wheeler declared the workers would be working in agriculture — but instead Wheeler put them to work in lawn care and construction.

In a federal investigation agents learned Wheeler failed to pay the required overtime.

Workers also told the agents Wheeler required them to pay rent, airfare from their homes in the Dominican Republic and fees to use the company’s trucks, all of which are prohibited under visa regulations.

Wheeler agreed to pay a $25,000 fine and $152,382 to the workers for the unpaid overtime.

The company will pay $174,704.91 to the workers in restitution  and will pay $75,000 in lieu of forfeiting property and a work vehicle.

Wheeler and his company will be prohibited from participating in the H-2A visa program for 10 years.

Formal sentencing is scheduled for July 31.

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mjames@dailyindependent.com

Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.