Juan Antonio Perez answered the questions without hesitation in his deposition four years ago, chuckling with the attorney who was probing him about his home construction business and employees.
No, the 46-year-old Bartow County businessman did not collect employment authorization documents — called I-9 forms — for his employees, as required by federal law. No, he did not withhold income taxes for them. No, he did not withhold Social Security taxes for them either.
Perez is the entrepreneur at the center of a sensational criminal case in North Georgia that has been drawing headlines since he was indicted last month. Federal prosecutors say he entered the country illegally 27 years ago from Mexico and then managed to build a highly profitable business and make millions of dollars by underpaying his fellow immigrant workers and failing to withhold taxes for them.
They have built much of their case against him based on the answers he gave in his 2015 deposition for an unrelated lawsuit against his company. The video recording of that deposition — obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — illuminates how Perez came to America and ran his company. It’s unclear if he would have drawn the attention of authorities without the lawsuit, which focused on a van crash involving someone who did painting for Perez.
Prosecutors say he has lived in luxury, accumulating 14 guns, seven offices and homes, including a guarded 7,543-square-foot compound in rural Rydal, and more than 50 vehicles, some of them vintage collectibles. Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Perez on charges of harboring unauthorized immigrants for financial gain and possessing firearms while being in the country illegally. Both are felonies that each carry up to 10 years in prison.
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Perez has pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment, though his previous lawyer said last month that Perez’s workers are documented and that taxes have been paid for them. A spokesman for the federal prosecutors also declined to comment.
“Perez has built a successful and lucrative residential construction business,” Aztec Framing, says an affidavit the prosecutors filed in court two months ago. “This investigation has learned that one reason for Aztec’s profitability is that Perez and his subcontractors employ illegal aliens for whom no payroll taxes are withheld and who receive no insurance or other benefits.”
Federal authorities, who spent five years investigating Perez, haven’t said what prompted their probe. But their affidavit says it is based on tips, bank and tax records, and Perez’s deposition in the 2014 lawsuit Chattanooga resident Leroy Williams filed against Aztec and one of its painters, Rosendo Ramirez-Guzman.
The lawsuit says Ramirez-Guzman ran a red light and slammed his van into a vehicle Williams was riding in, breaking Williams’ right elbow. Aztec denied in court papers that Ramirez-Guzman was an employee. The judge in the case ultimately approved a settlement directing Ramirez-Guzman to pay Williams and the law firm that represented Williams $33,000.
Danny Ellis is the Chattanooga-based attorney who represented Williams. In 2015, he persistently but politely questioned Perez on camera for more than an hour. In the video of the deposition, Perez occasionally glances at text messages on his phone but otherwise concentrates on Ellis’s questions and is cooperative. Their exchanges are quick and polite.
At one point, Ellis asks him about several of Aztec’s employees. Perez says he did not withhold income or Social Security taxes for them. Ellis then asks Perez if those employees submitted I-9 forms to Aztec, documents that help employers verify people’s identities and whether they can work legally in the United States. Perez answers no and then admits he doesn’t know what an I-9 form is.
The affidavit prosecutors filed with their complaint against Perez says he stated in his deposition that he entered the country illegally. But Perez doesn’t say that when Ellis asks him about his background.
Ellis: “Where are you from originally?”
Ellis: “When did you immigrate to the United States?”
Ellis: “Did you come in through Brownsville (Texas)?
Perez: “They brought me when I was a little kid, so I don’t know.”
Ellis: “Your parents?”
Perez: “No, someone else.”
Ellis: “And you have lived in the States ever since?”
Ellis: “How old were you when you came to the States?”
Perez: “I was little.”
Ellis: “How little is little?”
Perez: “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Ellis: “You don’t remember how old you were?”
Perez: “Maybe 13.”
Ellis: “Are your parents still back home in Mexico?”
Ellis: “Do you get to see them?”
Perez: “No. Well, yeah, every couple of years.”
Ellis said he doesn’t know how prosecutors got their hands on the deposition. The AJC obtained a copy from the Tennessee-based video deposition company. Ellis added he was stunned in May when he read a news article that said prosecutors had based parts of their case against Perez on the deposition. He recalls thinking: “Oh my goodness, that was my case.”
“It shocked me completely.”