LAPLACE, La. — It made national news last month when an undocumented immigrant with no driver’s license and a history of poor driving got behind the wheel of a chartered bus and crashed into a Louisiana highway accident scene, killing a local fire chief and a Mississippi man.
The person who arranged for the bus to take a crew of at least 24 workers to flood cleanup work in the Baton Rouge area also was an undocumented immigrant with a troubled history, but lots of paperwork to establish his legitimacy as a businessman.
Edgar Emilio Rueda Betancourth used falsified documents in 2011 to try to get a Louisiana driver’s license, according to a state police report. Rueda managed to set up businesses and register them with the Secretary of State, which allowed him to set up a long-term relationship as a labor recruiter for WRS Inc., a staffing firm owned by two Republican elected officials.
The revelations raise new questions about just how interested contractors and other employers are in weeding out undocumented immigrants before hiring workers, and just how intent the federal government is in catching them.
“Did they know he was here illegally? Or was it just a wink and a nod and, ‘Oh, OK, you have this paperwork. That’s good so we’ll just move with that’?” asked Donald “Chick” Foret, a former federal prosecutor.
Rueda has been operating a business under the name North American Cleaning Crew LLC. He applied for residential and commercial contractor’s licenses in 2014, but never completed the process with the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors.
But that didn’t stop him from pulling permits under North American Cleaning Crew in New Orleans, including for a large interior demolition project in 2013.
WRS called on Rueda on Aug. 28 to bring them a crew of potential workers to gut flood-damaged commercial properties. Rueda then arranged for a bus from Kristina’s Transportation to pick up workers.
WRS owner David Wallace, a GOP state representative in Arkansas, told The New Orleans Advocate last week that his firm always made sure the workers Rueda brought them were documented before hiring them.
But WRS, which also is owned by St. Tammany Parish constable Eddie Schmidt, was not able to sniff out Rueda as an undocumented immigrant himself over many years of paying him, said WRS’ attorney Jesse Wimberly.
Wimberly said Rueda used a tax identification number and other federal documents to convince Schmidt he was legal to work in the U.S. WRS paid Rueda’s North American Cleaning Crew more than $10,000 since 2014 to provide them with work crews, Wimberly said. And that doesn’t even count payments Schmidt’s other companies made to Rueda.
“This guy has been finding employees for (Schmidt) for a long time,” said Wimberly.
In Rueda’s 2014 application for a commercial contractor’s license, he lists three companies he had been subcontracting for, and two of them, DR Services and Command Center, were companies affiliated with Schmidt, Wallace or their partners.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is investigating the incident and has placed a deportation hold on bus driver Denis Yasmir Amaya Rodriguez, a Honduran national who faces charges of negligent homicide, negligent injuring, reckless operation and driving without a license in the Aug. 28 crash. But customs enforcement officials said Rueda is not currently wanted for his role in the incident.
Wimberly said Rueda had a federal Employer Identification Number for North American Cleaning Crew, which WRS thought was proof of legal immigration status. But the immigration agency says that tax identification number is easily procured from the IRS without proof of citizenship.
“So he has tried to cloak himself in paperwork that would give him the appearance that he’s doing it the right way and that he is here legally,” Foret said.
Conservative politicians, including both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators and Attorney General Jeff Landry, questioned how Amaya had managed to stay in the country illegally after five violations for driving without a license and an arrest for domestic abuse battery in 2011, criminal charges that were later dropped.
The same questions could be raised about Rueda, who has been caught without a valid driver’s license multiple times and once was arrested for allegedly trying to trick the state into giving him one.
He got in a car accident in Jefferson Parish in 2009 and was cited for driving on a New Mexico license more than six months after moving to Louisiana.
It appears that license was bogus, however, because two years later he showed up at the Office of Motor Vehicles in Westwego, La., with a Puerto Rican birth certificate and Social Security card with someone else’s name on them, according to a case report by State Police Sgt. Pat Bradley.
In that same report, Bradley said Rueda admitted under questioning that he was not the person listed on the documents and that he had purchased them in an effort to get a Louisiana driver’s license.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and people born there are automatically U.S. citizens, which is why Rueda would have used a Puerto Rican birth certificate to try to establish himself as a citizen.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick charged Rueda with using fraudulent documents for identification purposes, but the criminal charge was eventually dropped.
A year later, Rueda was pulled over and charged with driving without any license.
Rueda did not return messages left by phone and email Wednesday.
Follow David Hammer on Twitter:@davidhammerWWL