By Connor Beach
The former owner of the Thatched Cottage catering hall in Centerport has pled guilty to federal charges of forced labor.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York announced last Wednesday that Ralph Colamussi, 64, of Huntington, admitted to forcing Filipino nationals to work at his catering venue under threat of deportation.
Colamussi entered the plea last week before United States District Judge Denis R. Hurley in federal court in Central Islip.
In a statement released last week, prosecutors said Colamussi admitted in the plea proceeding he staffed the Thatched Cottage with workers who were brought from the Philippines to the United States on H-2B visas that expired shortly after their arrival.
“Once their H-2B visas expired, Colamussi coached workers how to apply for student visas by fraudulently representing that they intended to attend school full-time and had sufficient resources to support themselves during school,” the statement said.
Colamussi also admitted in court that he deposited funds in bank accounts to allow the workers to fraudulently obtain student visas, and then withdrew the funds once the student visas were approved.
In his plea Colamussi said he used threats of deportation to intimidate the illegal workers. When the workers objected to performing certain jobs, working long hours or not being paid on time “he threatened to report them to immigration authorities.”
Hauppauge-based attorney Anthony LaPinta, who is representing Colamussi, confirmed Tuesday his client’s guilty plea.
“Mr. Colamussi has taken responsibility for his regretful conduct. Our priority at this time is to provide him with much needed medical care,” LaPinta said.
Colamussi operated the Thatched Cottage in Centerport for three decades before filing for bankruptcy in January 2014. Before the bankruptcy auction later that year, Colamussi was found unconscious and doused in gasoline in a van parked in a Huntington village parking lot. Officials at the time said it was an apparent suicide attempt, but Colamussi reportedly later denied that claim.
Hauppauge-based developer The Crest Group purchased the Thatched Cottage property in 2016, and plans call for a new venue, called Water’s Edge, to be up and running by early 2019.
Colamussi was indicted in December for the forced labor and fraud charges along with the Thatched Cottage’s former manager Roberto Villanueva, a citizen of the Philippines who lives in Glen Head. John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York, said the case against Villanueva is proceeding.
Mineola-based attorney Edward Jenks, who is representing Villanueva, said on Wednesday that his client is currently maintaining his not guilty position, but Colamussi’s guilty plea “could be a game changer.”
Colamussi is cooperating with the prosecution as part of his guilty plea and is alleging Villanueva “was the brains behind the operation,” according to Jenks.
Colamussi faces up to 20 years in prison, as well as restitution and a fine of up to $250,000, but LaPinta said he hoped for a “reasonable sentence.”
“At the time of sentencing, we will provide significant mitigation for his conduct, which will hopefully result in a reasonable sentence,” LaPinta said.
Villanueva is scheduled to appear in federal court on Friday in Central Islip before Judge Hurley.