CINCINNATI — The owner of a Cincinnati construction company was sentenced Tuesday to 18 months in federal prison on charges of theft and fraud.
According to his plea agreement, 55-year-old Ron Estes stole tens of thousands of dollars from his employees' retirement accounts and bought fake OSHA certifications for workers so his company, R & R Steel, could win a nearly half-million-dollar contract for construction work on the 8th and Sycamore project in downtown Cincinnati.
In U.S. District Court Tuesday, Estes turned to his victims, apologized and insisted he would pay back everything he owes them in the soon-to-be-determined court-ordered restitution.
"I did wrong," Estes said. "I wish I could take these things back."
The WCPO 9 I-Team first reported on the allegations against Estes in 2017.
Many of his employees were Hispanic, spoke little or no English and accused Estes of underpaying them for work, stealing their retirement savings and not providing them with OSHA-required training and equipment for potentially dangerous jobs.
Several of those employees came forward and became whistleblowers who brought evidence to local, state and federal investigators. They were also in court when Estes received his prison sentence.
"I'm so happy that it happened, not just for me but for everyone," former R & R Steel employee Gandhi Merida said.
Merida, one of the workers who turned in Estes and cooperated with various investigations, said Estes' prison sentence shows business owners risk being sentenced to prison for cheating and stealing from their employees.
He said he hopes Estes' sentence will empower vulnerable workers to take up for themselves and their rights.
"They can stop living in the dark," Merida said. "They can stand up for themselves."
U.S. District Judge Timothy Black allowed Estes to begin serving his prison sentence in March.
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