BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – A delay in sentencing two brothers who plead guilty in federal court to forced labor charges at their Oahu farm operation will put the workers’ impoverished families in Thailand six weeks closer to losing their farms and homes.

Michael Mankone Sou and Alec Souphone Sou, owners of Aloun Farm, were able to get their sentencing in U.S. District Court postponed from July 19 to September 9, after their attorneys told Judge Susan Oki Mollway that their clients who operate the 3,000 acre farm in Kapolei were bullied by federal agents into signing a guilty plea this past January.

Sam Khanja, one of 44 men the Sous admitted to bringing to Hawaii from Thailand in September 2004 to work at Aloun, was in federal court to witness the proceedings with his wife Joanna Thakhamhor. They were hoping for a resolution in the criminal case – Khanja’s family is counting on it.

As Thai recruiters directed him and the other workers to do, Khanja borrowed $20,000 to pay them on their promise that he would make that money and much more back over a three to four year contract with Aloun. However, Aloun released him and most of the other Thai workers without paying for their transportation home after only employing them from September 2004 to February 2005, and according to  Khanja and federal prosecutors, paying them far less than the promised $9.60 an hour.

The collateral for Khanja’s two loans are the family’s 35-acres of rice fields and their home in Maha Sarakham, Thailand. If Khanja doesn’t pay back the entire $20,000 plus $13,000 in interest for a total of $33,000 by this December, his family will lose everything they own.

He is just one of several dozen Thai workers who are in a financial crisis after being recruited in 2003 and 2004 in Thailand by Alec Sou and three Thai manpower companies including the Thai Taipei Manpower Company, Udon NT Union Manpower Company and K.S. Manpower Supply Company Ltd.

Khanja’s father died when he was just 14 years old and he has been the head of his family since. He is working odd jobs in Hawaii to make ends meet as he waits for what he hopes will be justice in the criminal case and a settlement in a separate pending civil suit to be filed by attorneys Melissa Vincent, Clare Hanusz and Glenn Honda. He hopes a resolution will come in time to save his family’s farm, home and livelihood.

ORIGINAL INDICTMENT ADDS OTHER CHARGES OF VISA FRAUD AND DOCUMENT SERVITUDE

The original August 2009 indictment charges were considerably more extensive, charging the brothers and one of the recruiters, William Khoo, with forced labor, document servitude and visa fraud.

The indictment says workers paid recruitment fees of $15,000 and $22,500 — an estimated 15 to 22 years of their typical annual income — through high-interest loans secured with family homes and farmland and that the defendants including the Sous received “kickbacks” from the workers recruitment fees, “pocketing” most of the money.

Sou Brothers (AlounFarms.com)

Federal guidelines say the Sou brothers could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines for admitting to the forced labor charge.

In court Monday, July 19, Judge Mollway spent five hours establishing a grid detailing how many points and what criminal category each Sou is assigned so she can consider the specific federal recommendations for sentencing.

Federal guidelines dictate that Alec could face additional time in prison because of his two DUI convictions in 2005 and 2008.

Mike’s defense attorney, Eric Seitz, and Alec’s defense attorney, Howard Luke, monopolized the hearing until the court closed. They told the judge that their clients are innocent of crimes they already admitted to in sworn, signed sentencing statements.

Seitz and Luke say federal agents threatened to pursue the Sous for additional charges.

They both blamed Thai recruiter, turned government witness, Matee Chowsanitphon for most of the illegal activity and threats against the workers, noting Chowsanitphon has already been sentenced to six months home detention and five years probation for his participation.

The Judge asked if the Sous planned to change their plea — an option they considered for several minutes before Alec agreed to stand by his guilty plea.

Alec, who speaks Thai, admits traveling to Thailand to recruit the workers, that he knew workers were charged high recruitment fees for the opportunity to work in Hawaii, that he kept the workers on after their visas expired, that he did not pay for their air travel from Thailand to Hawaii and back even though he is required to under the H-2A visa program, and that when Chowsanitphon told the workers in Hawaii that their contract for $9.60 an hour was “just a piece of paper” to satisfy federal government requirements, and not real, Alec did nothing to correct him.

Thai workers say they were transported in a box van like this one normally used for cargo; Workers said they could not breathe and often fell ill during transport.

Because Mike wavered on his guilty plea, the judge told him to put into writing what he is accepting responsibility for. That took four days. Late Friday, Seitz also reaffirmed Mike’s guilty plea for the forced labor charge in a federal filing, but softened the wording in his client’s admission to read:

“In accordance with Paragraph 25 of the Memorandum of Plea Agreement Defendant Mike Mankone Sou hereby agrees and reaffirms that on or about September 4, 2004, and continuing through about February, 2005, he knowingly and voluntarily participated in a series of transactions by which forty- four Thai workers traveled to work at Aloun Farms with the expectation that they would work for up to three years or at least long enough to pay off the substantial debts the workers had incurred in Thailand in order to come to Hawaii. Mike Mankone Sou accepted the forty-four workers and employed them at Aloun Farms knowing that Aloun Farms had not paid for the workers’ transportation to Hawaii as required by applicable laws. Although he knew that the visas upon which the forty-four workers entered the United States were only valid for a period of a few months and would expire, Mike Mankone Sou employed the workers at Aloun Farms and is aware that the Thai workers repeatedly were told that they had to continue to perform on the job up to his expectations or else they would not be allowed to stay in Hawaii and likely would face severe economic consequences if they were required to return to Thailand before they had earned enough to pay off their indebtedness.”

Whether or not the judge will accept the revised statement will likely be discussed at the September 9 sentencing hearing.

THE DEFENSE’S UNUSUAL TACTICS

Attorneys interviewed for this story say the Sous and their attorneys used some unorthodox tactics to sway the judge and media in their favor.

After sending an email around asking for friends, business associates and employees to show up in court and write letters in their favor, the Sous bused in dozens of their workers to line the courtroom.

The Sous submitted to the court several dozen letters from some of the most influential people in the community including two former Democratic governors, John Waihee and Benjamin Cayetano, prominent bankers and agriculture officials.

To show that the Thai workers were well cared for during their employment at Aloun from September 2004 to February 2005, the defense team showed a 10-minute video featuring Aloun employees they claimed have cooked or driven for them – and included testimony of a Buddhist priest about the workers’ emotional well being.

(After the hearing, a Thai worker interviewed by Hawaii Reporter said the driver and cook interviewed in the video were, substitutes and not the main people assigned to cooking and driving.)

Seitz also submitted to the court a published letter in the Sous favor by Makakilo activist Kioni Dudley who was in the courtroom.

Dudley told Hawaii Reporter he doesn’t know much about the accusations against the Sou brothers, but is advocating no jail time in letters to the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii Reporter. He’s calling their critics to “interview” them, because Dudley he said fears if the farm closes, the land would be developed into housing.

Other Sou supporters who want them released without jail time claim ignorance of their admitted crime say the Aloun Farm is an important part of the agriculture community and provides 180 jobs.

The judge told the Sous Monday that packing the courtroom would not make a difference in her ruling.

Susan French, trial attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Washington D.C. office, was prepared to present her sentencing statement, but didn’t get time because the defense took up three hours until the court closed. The sentencing is delayed two more months. French did briefly remind the judge that the Sous had willingly admitted in a sworn statement to being part of a conspiracy.

WITNESS TAMPERING ALLEGED: MIKE SOU NOW ON HOME DETENTION

According to federal documents, Mike Sou is under house arrest since early June and has a “no contact” order with witnesses since reportedly trying to influence Thai workers to change their testimony and say they lied to the FBI and in return offering them through a third party $35,000 each.

Mike’s attorney Eric Seitz said in a June 23, 2010, statement to Hawaii Reporter that the accusations are untrue and unfounded: “There was no witness tampering issue — just an allegation second or third hand that is patently absurd and was refuted not only by Mike but also by the intermediary who allegedly made the contact.  Mike has been on restriction to his home and work, but there have been no problems since then, and we don’t anticipate any.”

Despite Seitz’s strong denial, the judge sided with the prosecution after they submitted a federal document filed June 11 that reports:

“On or about May 23, 2010, Special Agent Gary Brown received information from interpreter Serena Davis, that SM, a Thai national victim in this case, had contacted her alleging that Defendant Mike Sou was contacting victims through third parties recruiting victims to sign a document stating that they had lied to the FBI – that he would only need four people to say this and he would win his court case. According to witnesses, when asked why someone would sign such a statement, the third party responded, for $35,000, who wouldn’t? Agent Brown subsequently interviewed witnesses pertaining to this allegation.”

Other allegations of witness tampering are reported in this filing. “On May 24, 2010, TS a Thai worker, was interviewed by Special Agent Gary Brown and stated that the previous week SV, a Laotian friend, contacted TS on behalf of Defendant Mike Sou and asked him to sign a document to prove Sou did nothing wrong. TS reported that SV stated that Mike Sou said to tell TS that if he (Mike Sou) loses the case he (Mike Sou), will send the 20 guys who sued Aloun Farms back to Thailand. SV told TS that if Mike Sou wins the case, he will help the 20 guys stay in the United States. TS told SV he would think about it but did not meet with Sou or respond to SV.”

In this same filing, another accusation against Mike Sou is detailed: “On April 4, 2010, FBI Special Agent Gary Brown interviewed SM, a Thai victim, about a February 20, 2010 encounter he had with Defendant Mike Sou. SM stated that SM attended a Laos Chinese New Year festival and that Mike Sou engaged in a conversation. The no contact order was in effect at the time.”

ANOTHER INVESTIGATION MAY BE UNDER WAY

While Judge Mollway must determine whether to accept the Sous statements of guilt and whether to sentence them to jail time, there may be at least one other government investigation into the Sous under way centering on their financial management of their non-profit foundation.

An aluminum roof covers furniture at the outdoor camp on Aloun Farm

The Sous were able to obtain through the Aloun Foundation, their non-profit 501(c) 3, loans from the Department of Agriculture including $642,000 and $2.1 million for farm labor housing and $346,500 from the same department for rural rental assistance payments. That is a total of more than $3 million from 2004 to 2009.

Workers lived in a make shift camp at Aloun Farm

According to Thai workers, at least 11 Thai workers were housed in storage containers on the farm without plumbing or air conditioning.

In September 2004, 44 workers say they were crammed into one 5-bedroom home in Waianae that the Sous own until some of them were relocated to the farm containers.

Was the money for the non-profit used to benefit the for-profit business, and how were millions of dollars in federal grants and loans to house their farm workers spent? These are questions posed by Hawaii Reporter to Hugh Jones, deputy state attorney general in charge of investigating Hawaii non-profits. He says he cannot comment on investigations.

However, Jones said questions posed by Hawaii Reporter about how federal dollars were good questions that should be asked.

Reach Malia Zimmerman, editor of Hawaii Reporter, at Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards.