Eurofresh, Inc., will pay a $600,000 penalty as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over a charge the greenhouse cucumber and tomato grower allowed at least 17 illegal immigrants to work in supervisory roles during the previous decade.

The agreement follows a federal investigation into Eurofresh’s hiring practices that found the Willcox, Ariz.-based company knowingly hired and engaged in “a pattern and practice of employing unauthorized aliens,” according to a Justice Department statement Aug. 27.

Eurofresh agreed to pay a “criminal forfeiture judgment” of $600,000, reflecting money made by the company from these employees, according to the Justice Department and a Eurofresh spokeswoman. The company will remain on probation for five years until the judgment is satisfied in full, the department said.

“This judgment is a message to other employers who engage in illegal practices that there is a real cost to their actions,” U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke said in the statement. “We will continue to work with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security to ensure our nation’s laws are followed.”

According to the Justice Department statement, from August 2000 through December 2006, Eurofresh, through its former human resources director, Kenneth Ward, knowingly hired and continued to employ at least 17 supervisory-level employees, despite Ward knowing the employees were unauthorized to work in the U.S.

In 2007, Ward pleaded guilty to charges of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants between 2000 and 2003 and is awaiting sentencing by U.S. District Court. Eurofresh fired Ward in 2006 after investigating the Justice Department’s allegation and agreed to cooperate with the government.

Eurofresh, in an Aug. 27 statement, said its senior management was not aware of Ward’s illegal activities and was found innocent of any wrongdoing.

“Eurofresh does not tolerate illegal activities and regrets that a former employee engaged in illegal conduct more than five years ago,” Johan van den Berg, Eurofresh’s chief executive officer, said in the statement.

“The Eurofresh management team is diligent about conducting business with the utmost attention to ethical and legal practices,” the company said. After discovering the wrongful hiring practices, Eurofresh “acted swiftly to implement new procedures, conduct regular audits and use the federal E-Verify system to ensure full compliance with immigration laws.”

Eurofresh’s statement contradicted Ward’s guilty plea, during which he alleged that four top company officials, whom he didn’t name, knew of the illegal hiring and that the number of employees illegally hired was more than 1,000, the Arizona Daily Star reported.