Hawaii Reporter won four awards at the Society of Professional Journalists ceremony on Friday including top awards for investigative reporting and online journalism.
Jim Dooley, investigative reporter for Hawaii Reporter, won “finalist” awards in the best business reporting and best government reporting for his work on native Hawaiian contracting preferences.
He uncovered a handful of Native Hawaiian-owned companies used federal contracting preferences authored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI, to land some $500 million in non-bid or reduced competition government work since 2005, according to federal purchasing records.
Officials, employees and partners of many of the same companies donated nearly $100,000 during the same period to the Inouye election campaign and $100,000 more to other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, files of the Federal Election Commission show.
Much of the contract work involved installation of computer and communications systems for the armed services. A wide range of other jobs have been performed, including security guard work, explosive ordinance disposal and even provision of mental health professionals for treatment of U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
The contracting preferences are given to companies called Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHO’s) and are similar to federal procurement allowances used by Alaskan Native Corporations (ANC’s) to obtain nearly $30 billion in non-bid or reduced competition government work since 2000.
The ANC contracts came under critical fire recently in Congress. Native Hawaiian contractors are concerned that reform legislation authored by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) aimed at ANC’s could endanger the benefits now enjoyed by Native-Hawaiian owned firms.
Malia Zimmerman, editor of Hawaii Reporter, won the top investigative reporting award and top online news reporting award for her series of stories on alleged human trafficking of Thai workers at Aloun Farms.
Hawaii Reporter uncovered the story in 2007 about the plight of the 44 Thai workers brought to the farm in partnership with Thailand-based manpower recruitment companies.
Laborers brought from Thailand to Hawaii in 2004 to work at Aloun Farms on Oahu’s west side are currently being subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice to appear in court on July 27, 2011, to testify against the owners of the farm, Alec Souphone Sou and Mike Mankone Sou.
The Sous were originally indicted in August 2009 on three counts including conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude. Also indicted was Siew Khiong Khoo aka William Khoo, partner in Udon NT Union Manpower Company and employee of Thai Taipei Manpower Company Ltd.
The Justice department said 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. The Justice Department includes this detail in the indictment.
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.
However, defense attorneys Eric Seitz and Howard Luke later argued that their clients were essentially being forced by the justice department into admitting to crimes they did not commit, and U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway said she had no choice but to throw out the plea agreement and return the money about to be dispersed to Thai workers back to the Sous as their attorneys requested.
The U.S. Department of Justice Human Trafficking division made good on its threat to pursue additional charges against the Aloun Farms owners after the brothers backed out of the 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 27, 2011.
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.
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.
The case, which made the New York Times editorial page, is the subject of a French documentary and will be featured in a series on Al Jazeera London television. The story is finally making news in Asia, with Hawaii Reporter’s stories featured in the Bangkok Post. Of interest to many American and foreign reporters is the fact that two former governors and some of Hawaii’s most influential bankers, agricultural leaders and business people, are openly siding with the brothers, writing letters to the judge and issuing statements to the news media.
A separate civil case pending against the Sou brothers has not yet been filed by immigration attorneys Clare Hanusz and Melissa Vincenty.
In addition to Hawaii Reporter’s awards, Greg Wiles, former reporter for both the now defunct The Honolulu Advertiser and Hawaii Reporter, won a business reporting award for his story on electric cars. Wiles now works for the state auditor.