Crystal Hot Sauce bottles... 09/04/03

Bottles of Crystal Hot Sauce move along the processing line at Baumer Foods Inc.

ADVOCATE STAFF FILE PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

Federal authorities in New Orleans on Wednesday charged a man with stealing more than $400,000 from the food company that manufactures Crystal Hot Sauce.

Wayne Soniat, 61, pilfered the money between November 2009 and October 2014, when his duties at the company included keeping track of when temporary employees worked and ensuring those employees as well as the firm through which they were hired got paid, acting U.S. Attorney Duane Evans' office in New Orleans said.

He stole money by signing time sheets that showed work had been done by temporary contract workers who had not actually put in hours, Evans' office said.

He then allegedly obtained debit cards in the names of those workers, described in the bill of information as "ghost employees." Payments were made on the cards for the time the ghost employees supposedly worked, and Soniat then withdrew those funds at local ATMs before spending the cash on personal expenses, Evans' office alleged. 

In all, Soniat pocketed more than $437,000 over a series of about 200 wire transfers, Evans' office said.

Prosecutors filed a bill of information charging Soniat with one count each of wire fraud and making false statements on federal income tax returns. 

The document does not name the company, saying only that it is headquartered in Metairie and has a manufacturing plant in Reserve.

However, the company's CEO, Alvin Baumer Jr., confirmed that Soniat used to work for Baumer Foods, the maker of Crystal Hot Sauce, which is based on Edenborn Avenue in Metairie and runs a manufacturing facility in Reserve.

Baumer declined to comment on the case. 

Soniat worked at the company from early 1999 to late 2014, the bill of information said. He was promoted to the role of warehouse manager in 2008.

The fact that prosecutors charged Soniat through a bill of information suggests he is prepared to plead guilty.

"Mr. Soniat has accepted full responsibility for any illegal actions he may have taken in this matter," said Soniat's lawyer, Marion Floyd.

Baumer's bottling plant on Tulane Avenue in Mid-City was a local landmark, though both the facility and its recognizable sign — a chef stirring a pot of hot sauce — were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The company then moved its plant to Reserve, on the east bank of St. John the Baptist Parish. The old plant in Mid-City was transformed into an apartment complex with a new sign still showing a chef stirring hot sauce. 

Soniat faces up to 23 years in prison as well as a maximum $250,000 fine if he is convicted, Evans' office said. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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