Greeneville — The owner of a Grainger County slaughterhouse who used illegal immigrants for decades and paid them cash wages to avoid federal employment taxes formally pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

James Brantley, 61, of Bean Station faces sentencing Feb. 4 in Greeneville. Last month he signed a plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors.

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He pleaded guilty to four counts in an information, a document to which he submitted without a grand jury review. The charges: two counts of failing to collect and pay federal employment taxes, one count of wire fraud and one count of hiring unauthorized aliens.

U.S. District Courthouse in Greeneville

Under the law, he faces a maximum term of five years each on the first two counts, 20 years on the third and 6 months on the fourth.

A pre-sentence report will be prepared ahead of sentencing.

Brantley appeared in court with defense attorney Norman McKellar.

He's being allowed to remain free pending sentencing.

U.S. District Judge Greer warned him to stay out of trouble, give up his passport if he had one and limit his travel to within the East Tennessee area.

He also must keep in touch with probation authorities while he's out.

Greer directed Brantley to sign a $20,000 non-surety bond. He's allowed to remain free essentially by assuring with his signature that he'll comply until February with the judge's orders.

In April, acting on a tip, federal authorities raided Brantley's plant, Southeastern Provision. They took dozens of illegal workers into custody.

The "net effect" of his deceit amounted to $1.296 million in unpaid FICA taxes, documents state.

During the raid, federal agents found at least 104 "unauthorized aliens", according to the government. Brantley knew the status of at least 60 of those workers.

When filing IRS tax forms for the fourth quarter of 2017, Brantley only claimed to have 44 wage-earning employees.

More: Owner agrees to plead guilty

Beginning in 2013, the government alleged, Brantley authorized two managers to start hiring illegal immigrants to work at his plant, documents state.

The government said Brantley used millions of dollars in cash through the years to pay the illegal workers $8 or $10 an hour. He wanted to keep their employment off the books so the government wouldn't know what he was doing and so he could skip out on paying FICA taxes.

After the April raid, many of the workers ended up being transported and held for several months in Louisiana. Some have since returned to East Tennessee.

They face possible deportation. About 10 other workers who were found to have already been deported or to have previously been ordered out of the United States also were arrested.

As he wrapped up Wednesday's court hearing, Greer said he "couldn't help but note the irony" of Brantley's status compared to those of some of his former employees.

While many spent months held without bond by immigration authorities, Brantley could post a non-surety bond and enjoy his freedom, the judge observed.