At Work in the Fields of the Lord

Six years ago Marie Nonombre came to South Florida for one simple reason: to work. This was not an option in Haiti, her homeland. "You finish your school, and nobody hires you," she says simply.

Unfortunately the States haven't been much kinder. At 26 years old, the single mother of two finds herself unemployed. Her main task on this November afternoon is to clean her apartment, a dimly lit one-bedroom affair in downtown Belle Glade. Framed pictures of flowers hang on the walls, peach curtains block the sunlight, and Montel Williams is on the TV, interviewing twins who prostitute themselves to support drug addictions.

In the fall of 1997, Nonombre was one of some 125 Haitian women in Belle Glade hired by Thomas Brothers Farms to harvest vegetables. The company, one of the largest vegetable growers in the country, promised them a minimum wage of $6.36 an hour and an average of at least 30 hours of work per week from October until June.

But according to Nonombre, when they arrived for work the first day, the crew leader informed them that they would earn a "piece" rate -- generally 40 cents for each bucket of tomatoes picked, 50 cents for bell peppers, or 35 cents for cucumbers. While these are standard rates for harvesting vegetables, it left the women with significantly less than the $6.36 an hour they had been promised. "We have baby sitters, and we can't even earn the money to pay them," recalls Nonombre, her eyes fixed on the floor.

Despite the salary arrangement, Nonombre says she worked hard for Thomas Brothers. Each morning a bus run by Thomas Brothers' farm labor contractor, Ramon Sanchez Enterprises, would shuttle the women from downtown Belle Glade to the fields. At first three buses were required to transport the workers, but the ranks of laborers quickly dwindled. Many of the women were fired or quit.

In January, Nonombre missed a day of work. She says she had to take her daughter, who has sickle cell anemia, to the doctor. When she showed up for work the next day, the bus driver told her she no longer had a job.

Since that time, work has been tough to come by. Earlier this year she traveled to New York state to pack corn, leaving her kids in the care of her aunt. She has not worked since July, getting by instead on a government unemployment check. "Here, where I am now, it's very difficult to find good work," she says.

Nonombre is typical of the migrant farm workers who toil in the shadow of Palm Beach's opulence. She has little education, speaks no English, and knows almost nothing about her legal rights. (The situation is even worse for undocumented workers, who live in terror of the government. By most estimates illegal workers make up more than 40 percent of the farm worker population in South Florida.) What distinguishes Nonombre from her comrades is that she, along with 24 of her former coworkers, is now suing Thomas Brothers Farms for breach of contract. The women claim that they were systematically and illegally fired from their jobs so that the farm could bring in Mexican workers at a lower wage.

"These are clients who are not looking for a handout," says Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project (MFJP) in Belle Glade, which, along with Florida Rural Legal Services, is representing the women. "They work hard and all they want is to be paid what they're owed."

The lawsuit is one of two the MFJP has filed since June against Thomas Brothers Farms charging mistreatment of workers. The second case, a class-action suit, could involve as many as a thousand Central Americans who have worked in Thomas Brothers' packinghouses over the last four years. The workers claim they were charged $3 per day for transportation to and from the packinghouse, bringing their compensation below the federally mandated minimum wage of $5.15. The workers also claim they were not paid properly for overtime work and that social security taxes were withheld from their paychecks but never paid to the government.

The abuse of migrant workers -- first widely publicized by Edward R. Murrow's 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame -- has given rise to a set of federal and state labor standards regulating everything from the insurance required to transport workers to the conditions of immigrant housing. But farm owners regularly flout these regulations, and often the government has no other recourse than to impose fines that amount to a slap on the wrist. Thomas Brothers, as well as its primary labor contractor, has a lengthy history of violating federal labor laws.

Because of the inherent instability of farm work, with available jobs shifting from season to season and region to region, labor unions are unrealistic means of protecting workers. Lawsuits are often the only means available to rein in abuses. "We hope that they'll change their practices," Schell says, "but we also hope that the lawsuits send a signal to other farmers: Ignore the law at your peril."

Heading west on Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton, the backdrop is quintessential South Florida. Strip malls, storage facilities, and industrial parks bleed into gated housing developments with artificial lakes and names such as Fox Hill Estates and Kensington. These, in turn, bleed into golf courses, polo fields, and country clubs.

Just past the sign announcing the city limits of Boca Raton, though, is a visual anomaly: a farm. Hundreds of acres of tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper plants line the road in rows as strictly maintained as the nearby golf greens. Teams of Mexican workers in jeans and baseball caps walk the fields, trays of pepper plants hooked to their belt loops. They pause every few feet to stuff the plants into pristine rows of soil.

Clint Moore Road dead-ends in a series of mustard-color warehouses, ringed by an assortment of 18-wheelers and tractors. This homely site is, in fact, headquarters to Thomas Brothers Farms. The company farms more than 10,000 acres in Florida and western New York state and employs about 1000 workers at any one time.

Inside one of the company's warehouses, roughly 120 people are working this December morning on a completely mechanized cucumber and bell pepper production line (right down to the automatic glue gun). Another packinghouse next door, silent today, is reserved for tomatoes. Dirt-caked cucumbers direct from a Hobe Sound field slide across metal rollers and are transformed into waxed, shiny, Publix-ready vegetables. The machine shoots out boxes of cukes at a rate of roughly one every three seconds. By the end of the day, fourteen truckloads of cucumbers and nine more of bell peppers will be ready for shipping.

"Somebody will be eating them tomorrow," says Tom Boe, manager of the packinghouse. "Maybe today."

The workers who oversee the conveyor belt -- pulling out misshapen cucumbers or ensuring that boxes aren't too full or empty -- are anonymous but vital cogs in the operation. Most are immigrants from Central America, and some are also plaintiffs in the minimum-wage lawsuit pending against Thomas Brothers Farms.

John Thomas, the 79-year-old patriarch of Thomas Brothers, says he can't offer any specific comment on the pending lawsuits. But he insists his company is merely doing what's necessary to survive in an economy no longer kind to farmers.

When Thomas expanded the family business south to Palm Beach County in 1957, the Florida swampland was booming with agriculture. "Even along Federal Highway there was some land being worked when I first came down here," he recalls. Today Thomas says, "we get offers every day for our land. Big, big money. But we like what we do."

Farming is still the county's second-largest industry -- after tourism, of course -- generating around $1 billion annually. That's more than two times as much as its closest Sunshine State agricultural competitor, Miami-Dade County. Farms continue to occupy about half of the county's land.

But vegetable farmers such as Thomas are in a fierce battle to maintain their market. Cheaper imports, particularly from Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, have become an ever-present threat. "What we're struggling with is foreign product being dumped on our market," notes Lewanna Carusso, executive director of the Palm Beach County Farm Bureau. "We're price takers, we're not price setters. You're really not in control of your destiny there."

Thomas is more dire: "It's not a bright picture for agriculture," he says. "Nobody should sit back and figure we'll always have fruits and vegetables in this county."

Looming over Greg Schell's cluttered desk at the back of the MFJP offices in Belle Glade, is a rainbow-color list of perhaps 500 Haitian names. Each of the Haitians was a plaintiff in a previous minimum wage case that Schell argued against a Miami-Dade County farm accused of bilking employees out of their social security deductions. Schell planned to add the names one at a time to a display in the courtroom during closing arguments, thus highlighting the enormity of the financial wrongdoing. But the defendant settled before the case went to trial.

Schell notes that many farms would prefer to settle than face the prospect of losing in court -- and being forced to cover his costs. "They would rather do anything than pay our attorney fees," he says, noting that his bills can run $300 an hour. "That just kills them."

Despite a law degree from Harvard University, Schell is the antithesis of the corporate lawyers he often squares off against in court. His predilection is for beltless blue jeans that have not yet begun to fade, wrinkled, short-sleeve shirts, and Nike running shoes. His pallid skin, disheveled hair, and belly suggest a man who spends too many late nights in his office dining on takeout food.

Schell grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington state, where his family sometimes employed migrant workers, and he has devoted his entire post-law-school life to protecting the rights of those same laborers. He initially moved to Immokalee after hearing a speaker at Harvard tell of the Third World conditions in the area. With the exception of a five-year stint defending farm laborers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia ("Virginia is awful; it deserves to be paved over, really," Schell says), he's spent the last two decades in the Glades region, first in Immokalee, and for the last 11 years in Belle Glade. In the 1998 book, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, author Daniel Rothenberg notes that Schell is famously despised by farmers and their attorneys up and down the East Coast.

"We want them to know that if they screw up, we're gonna go get them," Schell says of the farmers. "Maybe we won't hear about it right away. But if they screw up long enough, we're gonna find out about it, and we will vigorously pursue the cases."

Beyond the moral imperative that drives Schell's work, it's evident he gets a kick out of what he calls the "David and Goliath" aspect. The MFJP has just four lawyers (two of whom are temporary employees paid through fellowships) but often does battle against multimillion-dollar corporations. "We're up against the biggest firms, with lots of hotshot lawyers, and we win most of the time," Schell boasts. "And that's ego. Because you're not getting bucks, you have to get something of value."

Schell, whose wife is a onetime migrant worker originally from Mexico, helped start the MFJP three years ago, after Congress passed a law forbidding groups that receive government funds from representing illegal immigrants and from bringing class-action lawsuits -- two staples of migrant farm worker legal battles. (Florida Rural Legal Services, where Schell previously worked, was one such group.) Virtually all of MFJP's funding comes through the Florida Bar, leaving it free of government meddling. In the absence of unions and stringent government enforcement of labor laws, the MFJP often serves as the only line of defense for the most disenfranchised workers.

The two cases pending against Thomas Brothers deal with issues that Schell and other lawyers for migrant farm workers have been litigating for years. "The Haitian-women case is unusual only because a farmer employed legal foreign workers, which is very unusual in this area," he says.

In recent years Schell has devoted much of his time to legally establishing that farmers who hire labor contractors to recruit workers are "joint employers" of the farm workers -- and therefore responsible for how the laborers are treated. The distinction sounds mundane. But it's crucial, because labor contractors are often fly-by-night operations with few resources. If the plaintiffs who Schell represents are going to recoup any money at all, in most cases it must come from the farmers themselves.

For decades farmers have relied on labor contractors as middlemen to recruit farm workers. The men and women who pick the bell peppers grown in Thomas Brothers' fields receive their paychecks not from the farm but directly from Ramon Sanchez or another contractor. Farmers argue that the system is necessary because of the seasonal nature of farm work. Companies require hundreds of workers when a crop is being harvested but have no use for them the rest of the year. Because few farm workers speak English, labor contractors also help bridge the language gap.

But Schell and others have argued for years that the use of farm labor contractors is an antiquated system that serves no other purpose than to provide legal cover to farmers when their workers are mistreated. "[Farmers] don't care what the labor contractors are doing, and it's not fair," says Tirso Moreno, general coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. "They're the owners of the product, and they should be liable. We don't feel that the labor-contracting system should exist."

Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis and the author of numerous books about migrant workers, refers to labor contractors as "risk absorbers, shock absorbers. Many of them are willing to accept the responsibility for labor law and immigration violations." Thus, conveniently, removing the onus from the farmer.

In both of the present cases, the plaintiffs are suing both Thomas Brothers Farms and its farm labor contractors: Ramon Sanchez Enterprises in the case of the fired Haitian workers and a company variously called Cellular Labor Contracting or Cip & Rod Enterprises in the minimum wage case. Ramon Sanchez Enterprises did not respond to calls requesting comment for this story. The company's attorney, Don Boswell, also declined to answer questions about the case.

Sanchez has worked with Thomas Brothers for about two decades and is the farm's primary source of labor. According to The Palm Beach Post's 1998 analysis of the largest private companies in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie counties, Sanchez ranked 20th with 350 employees and annual revenues of $4,000,000.

Cellular Labor Contracting, through its attorney, Nemia Schulte, rejects all of the claims in the lawsuit. Schulte says that if there were problems with payment of overtime, Thomas Brothers is fully responsible because it kept track of the hours. She also claims that if the packinghouse workers were charged for transportation, it occurred without the knowledge of Cellular Labor Contracting. "If that was done, it was not under the authority of my client, nor did he benefit from it in any way," Schulte says. She further notes that the MFJP is trying to squeeze blood from a stone if it expects to get any money from her client. "Even if everything [they] say about my client is true, the fact is they're gonna get a settlement that's not worth anything," Schulte says. "He doesn't have any money."

The case involving the Haitian workers highlights another issue of longstanding contention between farmers and migrant workers: the so-called H-2A program, which allows farmers to import workers from foreign countries if they can prove there are no American workers available. Schell and others contend that the program amounts to indentured servitude. Farm owners can handpick workers from around the globe -- workers unlikely to question working conditions or pay. "It's an employer's dream," Schell says. "That's why they do it."

The H-2A program was a mainstay of the sugar cane industry in western Palm Beach County for years, providing thousands of seasonal Caribbean workers, who performed the brutal work of cutting cane by hand. It was also a lightning rod for litigation, brought by advocates who claimed workers were systematically cheated out of their wages. The lawsuits continue to be fought today, despite the mechanization of cane harvesting in the early '90s, which eliminated the need for most seasonal workers.

Florida vegetable growers rarely use the H-2A program. But in 1997 Thomas Brothers filed a request for foreign workers. "This is being done as a last resort," John Thomas told The Palm Beach Post at the time. When Thomas Brothers placed the required labor order with the state job office in Belle Glade, however, the agency came back with 125 Haitian women ready to work. Under the rules of the program, Thomas Brothers was essentially forced to hire the women. The jobs paid a guaranteed $6.36 an hour, according to the H-2A application, and the women were guaranteed wages for at least 30 hours a week, from October 1997 until June 1998.

Rather than honor that commitment, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit now charge, Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises shortchanged the workers on pay, then systematically purged them so that Mexican workers could be hired at minimum wage. "The whole game was to get rid of them," says Schell. "They were stuck in a deal they hadn't anticipated. They wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible."

When Hurricane Irene ripped through South Florida unexpectedly in October, leaving a swath of destruction diagonally across the state, John Thomas climbed in his truck and followed the storm up the turnpike. From Thomas' perspective, Irene seemed to take a route expressly designed to destroy as much of his fall crop as possible. "This was not a democratic storm," Thomas says. "It was a selective storm."

Perhaps Thomas believed that Hurricane Irene wouldn't have the gall to destroy his crops while he bore witness. But if that was his thinking, it proved to be in error: about 60 percent of the farm's Florida fall crop was destroyed, according to Thomas.

It is clear that John Thomas, despite nearing 80 years of age, takes an active interest in the goings-on of his farming operation. Sitting in a nondescript conference room on the second floor of one of the packinghouses along Clint Moore Road, he proudly notes that he hasn't had a vacation in three years. In overseeing his various farms in Palm Beach, Martin, Hendry, and St. Lucie counties -- about 13,000 acres in all -- Thomas puts 50,000 miles on his truck annually. He also makes several trips each year to western New York, just south of Buffalo, where the Thomas farming operation got its start around the turn of the century and where they still grow grain, strawberries, and corn.

Thomas has an easy smile, gravelly voice, and an aw-shucks manner. The image he projects is more Norman Rockwell than corporate baron. By 6 a.m. each day, he's at the breakfast table with two bowls of Total cereal and 16 ounces of orange juice. "When I leave the house in the morning, I am fortified," he says. Thomas portrays the operation as a family farm: his seven children all work in the business.

Despite his rigorous oversight of the farm, when the subject turns to labor problems, the septuagenarian farmer pleads folksy ignorance. In Thomas' eyes, the current MFJP lawsuits are as much beyond his control as Hurricane Irene. He puts the blame for any problem on the labor contractors, also known as crew leaders, who Thomas employs. "I think we're clean as a whistle on our part," he says. "We were sitting back here doing everything right. Then this crew-leader thing dropped in on us."

Thomas characterizes himself as a benevolent employer, providing opportunities to hundreds of marginalized people who otherwise have few economic options. "The true story of what goes on in our fields is a lousy story, because it's not sensational," he says.

This is not the first time that labor problems have dogged Thomas, though. The company's compliance history with the Department of Labor is several inches thick. In 1987, for instance, an investigation found that Thomas Brothers and its farm labor contractor were charging workers in their tomato packinghouse money for transportation, thus bringing their compensation below the minimum wage -- exactly the accusation that is being leveled against them today. In 1989, 1992, 1994, and again this year, Thomas was fined for utilizing the services of an unlicensed farm labor contractor. Another inquiry in 1993 cited Thomas Brothers for numerous violations relating to transportation of farm workers, such as failing to provide a safe vehicle or to obtain insurance. Earlier this year an investigation of two housing facilities along State Road 7 operated by Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez found unsanitary toilets and a host of other minor problems such as overcrowding and broken windows.

Ramon Sanchez has a similarly long history of government investigations. Most notably, in March 1996 a crew of Sanchez's laborers got in an automobile accident in Hendry County while on their way to work. One of the occupants told investigators that she was only 15 years old when she began working for Sanchez -- a potential violation of child-labor laws. The woman, an illegal Mexican immigrant, testified in a sworn statement that she knew of six other workers who were underage and that there was no effort by Sanchez to verify that employees were old enough to work. The woman told investigators that someone from Sanchez's company visited her home and warned her to keep quiet or they would turn her over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. According to a 1996 review by the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security, 75 percent of Sanchez's employees did not have valid social security numbers. Despite this abundance of evidence, the investigation was closed in June 1996 without any disciplinary action.

Both Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises have been fined repeatedly over the years for violations, with assessments ranging from $500 to $4900, but the penalties seem to have had little effect on their employment practices.

Philip Martin, the University of California at Davis professor, cautions that a long list of labor violations does not necessarily mean that Thomas Brothers is deliberately mistreating workers. "The farm labor market is one of the most regulated labor markets, therefore there's a high level of violations," he says. "Even at so-called 'good farms.'"

Rather than alter its employment practices to comply with those stringent regulations, Thomas Brothers, like many large farms, has often concentrated its resources on overhauling the country's labor laws. While John Thomas may revel in the role of the folksy farmer, he is far from unsophisticated when it comes to getting what he wants. When the subject turns to politics, Thomas and his son Stephen are all smiles, rattling off a list of power brokers who they have the ear of. "I could show you pictures of me with Senator Graham and his daughters," Thomas says, speaking of the man whose name has been tossed around as a candidate for vice president.

"We've had just one-on-one lunches with Governor Bush," adds Stephen Thomas.

There's a good (and obvious) reason why bigwig politicians find time to meet with the Thomases: money. According to Federal Election Commission records, members of the Thomas family have given at least $38,550 to national political campaigns since 1994. Senator Graham, a Democrat, has received a total of at least $8000 from six different members of the Thomas clan. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas governor George W. Bush, has already received $4000 from the Boca Raton farmers.

Several key bills affecting farm workers are now pending before Congress. Perhaps the most important is a bill introduced in October and cosponsored by Senator Graham that would revamp the H-2A program. The legislation, optimistically entitled the "Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999," would no longer require farmers to provide housing to workers they bring in from overseas, and it would eliminate work guarantees for imported laborers. Perhaps most notably, the legislation would no longer require farmers to prove that there are no Americans available to perform the jobs for which they want to hire foreign workers -- the very stipulation that tripped up Thomas Brothers in its last attempt to use the H-2A program.

Another provision of the bill is aimed at the sticky issue of illegal immigrants. Acknowledging that a large number of farm workers are here without authorization, the legislation provides a means by which those laborers can legitimize their employment. Farm workers would have to prove that they had worked at least 180 days in each of five years over a seven-year period. Those who could do so would then be issued a green card to work legally in the United States.

Farm worker advocates note that it is extremely difficult for migrant workers to find 180 days of work in a year and that the laborers would be inordinately dependent upon their employers in order to meet the quota. The Farmworker Justice Fund, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., likens the system to indentured servitude. It claims in an analysis of the bill that it would "indenture foreign workers to agriculture and suppress improvements in labor conditions for all farm workers."

John Thomas derides the notion that there is something wrong with requiring people to work a certain number of hours in a specific field of work in order to remain in the country. "They call that a contract," he says. Thomas notes that many of the descendants of people who came to this country as indentured servants centuries ago are now CEOs of corporations.

When it comes to the lawsuits, however, he assumes a more sympathetic tone. "When we walk away at the end of this, we just want everything to be right," he says.

On a late Friday afternoon in November, at a downtown Fort Lauderdale law firm, attorneys for Thomas Brothers Farms and the farm workers sat down to discuss the two lawsuits. It was a cordial meeting, with the normally irascible John Thomas leaving most of the talking to the attorneys. Thomas Brothers conceded that there were some legitimate problems, at least in the minimum wage case, and noted that the farm has already made some changes to ensure its workers earn at least minimum wage. The workers at the packinghouse have now been brought in-house, with their paychecks issued directly by the farm, cutting out the labor contractor middleman. In addition Thomas Brothers now regularly audits the payrolls of its farm labor contractors.

The cordiality broke down, however, as it almost always does in these matters, when the issue of money arose. According to Schell the figures tossed around at the meeting ranged from $300,000 to $1 million to dispose of the minimum wage suit. But Thomas Brothers claimed that the company can't afford that kind of money. Despite the family's numerous political contributions and thousands of acres of farms in two states, Hurricane Irene left them without enough resources to settle the lawsuits.

Schell, naturally, was skeptical, and he asked to see the company's books. Thomas Brothers has yet to oblige. "They haven't done anything," Schell says now. "This was all blowing smoke on their part."

The tone of the meeting also soured, according to Schell, when the case of the Haitian women came up. He says that Thomas bristled when Schell suggested he rehire the women in the lawsuit, as well as the handful of Haitian women who lasted the entire season. "They were good enough to work for you a whole season," Schell recalls saying. "You told them you'd bring them back. You never brought them back. And instead you hired Ramon Sanchez to hire illegal aliens."

Despite the failure of this initial meeting to produce a settlement, it seems likely that both cases will eventually be disposed of before ever making it to trial. Neither of the parties involved seems particularly interested in a protracted battle. Schell says he believes that Thomas Brothers will lean on Ramon Sanchez to cough up some money to clear up the case involving the Haitian women. "I'm guessing Thomas will tell Sanchez, 'Take care of it,' and Sanchez will come up with some money."

It seems unlikely, however, that the suits will solve the fundamental problems that render the abuse of farm workers in Palm Beach County routine. At most they could provide a nudge toward improving working conditions. Schell believes that the only way significant changes will take hold, in the long run, is to force farmers to abandon their use of labor contractors. "We want farmers to take responsibility for their workers, and I would say that message is slowly but surely being received," he says.

The bleak reality for the 25 Haitian women suing their former employer is that their case will probably make little difference in their lives. Whether the suit is settled for $500,000 or for nothing at all, in the end, the only way they're going to improve their lives is by finding better-paying jobs. More than a year after the contract with Thomas Brothers expired, many of the women remain unemployed.

Christine Cadet is one exception. These days the unmarried mother of two regards her stint with Thomas Brothers as a bit of absurd theater more than anything else. She maintains that she was only making $25 or $30 a day working for the company, despite the contract specifying that she would get at least $6.36 an hour. The main problem, she says, was that the fields the Haitians were given to pick had already been combed over by other crews of workers. The vegetables were few and far between, Cadet says, echoing the statements of others -- and her paychecks were correspondingly small.

"They tried to fire all the Haitians and get Mexicans," she adds. Cadet recalls being out in the field one day picking tomatoes. When a crew of Mexican workers showed up, the women were told to leave. She laughs at the memory, though the anecdote hardly seems humorous.

Cadet lasted longer as an employee of Thomas Brothers than Marie Nonombre and many of the other Haitian women. She worked in the fields from October until February, when she too was fired. For what? Cadet says she hasn't the slightest idea.

She is not holding her breath waiting for Ramon Sanchez or Thomas Brothers to cough up some money. Cadet traveled to Georgia earlier this year to pick sweet corn and recently got a job around Belle Glade working in sugar cane. "It's three times better than Thomas," she says. "Where I work now I can earn some money."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko