A former employee of the local company that makes Crystal Hot Sauce admitted Wednesday that he stole more than $400,000 from the company before he was caught.

Wayne Soniat, 61, pleaded guilty to one count each of wire fraud and falsifying federal income tax returns during a hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman. He could receive anything from probation to 23 years in prison at a sentencing hearing set for May 16.

An attorney for Soniat said the defendant was committed to "working as hard as he can" to fully pay back the money.

"He accepts full responsibility for these crimes," lawyer Marion Floyd said.


Soniat acknowledged embezzling the money from Baumer Foods over five years beginning in November 2009, when his duties included paying temporary employees and the out-of-state firm through which they were hired. 

The scheme involved signing time sheets for a handful of temporary contract workers who had not actually put in any hours. He then obtained debit cards in the names of those workers, whom federal prosecutors described in court papers as "ghost employees." Soniat then withdrew pay on behalf of those employees at local ATMs and spent it himself. 

He pocketed more than $437,000 from roughly 200 transactions and never reported the money as income on his tax returns. That deprived the federal government of nearly $44,000 in taxes, according to a six-page document outlining the facts supporting Soniat's guilty plea.

Although court documents have avoided naming the company involved, CEO Alvin Baumer Jr. has confirmed that Soniat used to work for Baumer Foods, the maker of Crystal Hot Sauce. The firm is headquartered on Edenborn Avenue in Metairie and operates a manufacturing plant in Reserve.

Soniat began working for Baumer in early 1999. He was promoted to warehouse manager in 2008 and left the company in late 2014. He will remain free on bail ahead of his sentencing.

Baumer's bottling plant near Interstate 10 and Tulane Avenue was a famous New Orleans landmark. But Hurricane Katrina damaged both the facility and its signature sign, which depicted a chef stirring a pot of hot sauce. The company relocated its plant to Reserve, on the east bank of St. John the Baptist Parish.

The old Mid-City plant was transformed into an apartment complex with a new sign still showing a chef stirring hot sauce.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.