LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Michael Jackson was ordered to shut down his Neverland Valley Ranch on Thursday by California authorities who have fined the pop star $169,000 for failing to pay his employees or maintain proper insurance.
Jackson's sprawling ranch in the central California foothills was closed, at least temporarily, by an agent of the State Labor Commissioner after the office discovered that his worker's compensation policy had lapsed in January.
"We went out there this morning and issued a stop order to the security guard at the front gate," state Department of Industrial Relations spokesman Dean Fryer told Reuters. "We asked to be escorted in to meet management, but we were refused and turned away, so we gave the order to (the guard)."
Fryer said local animal welfare officials had been asked to care for the inhabitants of Neverland's zoo.
He said that Jackson could reopen the ranch if he obtains workers compensation insurance but may face legal action by the state if he fails to pay the back wages.
Jackson, who was cleared last June of criminal charges that he sexually abused a young boy at Neverland, has spent much of his time since the trial in Bahrain and was not at his ranch when authorities arrived. His representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
The order prohibits Jackson from employing anyone at the 2,800-acre (1,130-hectare) ranch until the insurance issues are resolved, Fryer said. "So it looks like this would mean for Neverland Valley Ranch that they would be closed down."
Jackson on Thursday was fined $69,000, or $1,000 per employee, for allowing his insurance to lapse. Earlier this week, authorities cited him for violating state labor law by failing to pay at least 30 employees since December of 2005. A letter for that citation imposes a $100,000 fine and demands that he make good on $306,000 in unpaid wages.
Fryer said his office learned of the workers compensation issue after a Neverland employee making an unpaid-wage claim remarked that a co-worker had been injured on the job and was uncertain about filing a claim due to the lapsed insurance.
If an employee were hurt at Neverland while Jackson was uninsured, Fryer said, "the medical expenses associated with that injury would have to be picked up by the state."
Prosecutors asserted during Jackson's child molestation trial that the pop singer was in precarious financial shape due to mounting debts.