LOS ANGELES — The California Department of Justice has arrested a 17-year-veteran state labor inspector on charges of extorting thousands of dollars from at least one apparel contractor.
Howard Hernandez, a deputy labor commissioner, was arrested by special agents on charges that he allegedly accepted $8,000 from a Korean-speaking middleman who allegedly told the owner that he could avoid a citation for a minor violation if he paid a bribe.
Agents said Hernandez threatened to shut down or confiscate goods from Two Thumbs Up Apparel Inc., a local sewing shop, for a minor violation: failure to report a new business address.
Special agents said the company’s owner, Danny Cynn, contacted them about the bribes. After supplying Cynn with the $8,000, authorities set up a sting on Sept. 9 in a Denny’s parking lot in Koreatown. Edwin Kim, Hernandez’s alleged partner in the bribery scheme, was arrested in the parking lot and cooperated with authorities, the agents said, and Hernandez was arrested later that evening.
Justice Department agents are also investigating reports that Hernandez and Kim may have sought bribes from other Korean-American garment contractors, according to George Fawrup, a special agent supervisor for the Justice Department. Hernandez was working on 300 open cases at the time of his arrest.
Hernandez, who was booked on suspicion of extortion Sept. 9, was released on $35,000 bail; Kim, who was booked Sept. 9 on suspicion of bribing an unnamed public official, was released on $10,000 bail.
Hernandez has been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation and termination, according to Jose Millan, the state’s new labor commissioner.
Hernandez and Cynn could not be reached for comment.
The case dealt a blow to the state’s labor apparel enforcement program and sent ripples through the Korean-American contracting community.
“This is a major blow to the agency,” Millan said. “It’s inevitable that someone will engage in wrongdoing in any agency and it is not so unusual, unfortunately,”he said.
“My agency is so small, but its impact on the garment industry has been so big and positive, and this incident unfortunately casts a shadow on our efforts,” Millan said.
It has prompted Millan to make immediate changes in his enforcement team. He is searching for an outside law enforcement agency to conduct an independent audit and review of his department.
He said field officers will no longer go on solo investigations. Instead, they will do investigations in pairs, and officials will be rotated more frequently between the garment and agriculture industries.