BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The U.S. Department of Justice Human Trafficking division made good on its threat to pursue additional charges against Aloun Farms owners Michael Mankone Sou and Alec Souphone Sou after a series of legal maneuvers enabled them to back out of their plea deal.
Federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment on October 27 against the Hawaii brothers accusing them of 12 criminal acts related to a forced labor scheme involving Thai workers at their Kapolei-based Asian vegetable farm on Oahu. The Sous pled not guilty October 30, and the case was scheduled to go to trial on July 26, 2011.
The Sous, who in September 2004 brought to Hawaii 44 workers in partnership with Thailand-based manpower recruitment companies, were originally indicted in August 2009 on three counts including conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude.
In January 2010, the brothers pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit forced labor involving 24 of the 44 workers, bringing down their maximum federal sentence from 15 years to 5 years.
The brothers also agreed to pay an estimated $8,000 per worker or $192,000 help defray money the Thai nationals lost when they were forced to pay high recruitment fees – as much as $20,000 – before coming to Hawaii.
Several workers, still living in the islands, are on the verge of leaving their families homeless and destitute in Thailand because the banks they were directed to borrow money from by the Thai recruiters are about to foreclose on their loans.
That includes 45-year-old Thai national Sam Khanja, who as head of his family since his father died when he was a young boy, made the decision to leave his family and country behind, in hopes of creating a better life for them all. He and his peers arrived in the islands in 2004, they were met with crowded housing conditions that the U.S. Justice Department has deemed “deplorable”, threatened with deportation before they were abandoned, and not paid what they were promised.
However, this September, Chief Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out their guilty plea after the Sous’ attorneys claimed the plea they originally agreed to is now inaccurate.
Since, there have been a number of manipulations by the Sous defense to delay the court proceedings and high drama surrounding the allegations both locally and internationally.
The case, which made the New York Times editorial page, is the subject of a French documentary and is finally making news in Asia, put Hawaii in the international spotlight, especially since two former governors and some of Hawaii’s most influential bankers, agricultural leaders and business people partnering with the Sous, are siding with the brothers via letters to the judge and statements to the news media.
There are also questions now surfacing about the role of the Thai government’s labor department which secured the jobs for the workers, the manpower companies that collected high fees and arranged the deal and the banks that gave the impoverished farmers high interest loans they could not likely repay in their lifetime in exchange for their homes and farms as collateral at the direction of the manpower companies
On October 13, Mollway ruled the Sous also would be returned their $192,000, which was about to be distributed to the Thai victims, so the Sous could pay their attorneys and fight the charges all together.
The Justice department’s Susan French said in mid September that her agency in partnership with the FBI would be filing additional charges against the Sous and a manpower executive based on additional information FBI investigators found since the original indictment was filed.
Just 6 weeks later, the Justice Department filed the superseding indictment, which includes the original charges and 9 others.
Also indicted is Siew Khiong Khoo aka William Khoo, partner in Udon NT Union Manpower Company and employee of Thai Taipei Manpower Company Ltd.
The Justice department says the brothers participated in a scheme with Thai recruiters to create a “cheap” and “compliant” workforce through false promises that enticed impoverished rural farmers to pay high recruitment fees upfront – fees they had to borrow through high interest loans at banks they were directed to by the recruitment agencies.
They are accused of leaving workers with minimal pay – $5 to $6 an hour when they were promised $9.60 an hour – through illegal deductions from their wages – and threatening the workers with deportation before they could earn back their recruitment fees, if they did not comply.
Several workers interviewed by Hawaii Reporter says they were forced to live either in overcrowded conditions (44 workers in 1 5-bedroom home in Waianae) or in storage containers that had no bathrooms, showers, or utilities and the Justice Department includes this detail in the indictment.
In addition to adding forced labor charges, the federal government charges the Sous with document servitude relating to the allegation that they confiscated the passports of the workers to restrict their movement when they first arrived in Hawaii.
The Justice Department also charged the Sous with visa fraud conspiracy for knowingly presenting the federal government with documents that contain false statements.
Two new allegations include “harboring for financial gain” or harboring an “alien” from March 1, 2005, to October 27, 2010, “for the purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain.” Though no details are offered on the names of the individuals, sources say these could be two of the 44 workers who remained loyal to the Sous after the others were told to leave when their visas expired.
Another new charge relates to a fraud allegedly perpetrated in court through a unique video presentation that the Sous’ attorneys presented in court during their sentencing negotiations (sentencing that never occurred since their plea was thrown out).
According to Thai workers interviewed at that court hearing, the man in the video presenting himself as their cook was not actually their cook and the driver claiming to be their driver really had only escorted the workers on very rare occasion. Both witnesses in the video could not be cross-examined that day because they were not in court, but they claimed the workers were not mistreated. The federal government says the Sous “corruptly obstructed, influenced, and impeded an official proceeding” with a video “that contained false and misleading representations.”
The number of victims the Justice Department filing included increased from 24 to 30 or more. Alleged victims continue to be tracked down and interviewed, say sources in the case.
Hawaii defense attorneys Eric Seitz and Howard Luke continue to maintain their clients’ innocence and have recruited outside talent to help their clients.
They’ve brought in Thomas H. Bienert, a former California-based U.S. attorney, deemed the “Perry Mason of Prosecution” before he became a defense attorney.
Meanwhile the civil suit is still pending. Clare Hanusz, together with Melissa Vincenty and Glenn Honda, are representing 30 victims and preparing to file a civil suit. Hanusz is the Honolulu attorney who brought the victims to the FBI two years ago.
“When the facts and the victims stories are presented in court, we are confident that the Sous will be found guilty for the crimes they have committed. It is a travesty that restitution fees were returned before being distributed to the victims, whose families were desperate for that money, which was less than half of the recruitment fees and interest. We will work hard to see that the victims are compensated the injustices they have suffered.” says Hanusz.