BY JIM DOOLEY – Prosecutors in the Aloun Farms forced labor trial lost another bid Wednesday to delay the proceedings, then took testimony from a key witness who implicated defendant Alec Sou in a scheme to underpay imported Thai workers and to collect $2,500 in kickbacks for every laborer he hired.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou are on trial in federal court on charges ranging from forced labor, document servitude, criminal conspiracy and witness tampering.
On Tuesday, the lead prosecutor, Asst. U.S. Attorney Susan French, withdrew from the case for unspecified health reasons and after she admitted giving misleading information to the grand jury that indicted the Sou brothers in 2009.
The Justice Department asked U.S. District Court Chief Judge Susan Mollway Tuesday and Wednesday to temporarily halt the trial until a replacement lead prosecutor can arrive from Washington to review the case files and decide how to proceed.
Mollway rejected those requests and instructed two prosecutors who were assisting French to continue presenting witnesses in the trial, which began last week and is scheduled to continue through the month.
Labor recruiter Matee Chowsanitphon testified that farm workers in Thailand agreed to pay $16,000 each to work in Hawaii, with the money to be evenly split between Chowsanitphon and a Singapore-based business partner, William Khoo.
Khoo is a co-defendant in the case but has never been arrested.
Chowsanitphon, a naturalized American who works at a 7-11 store in Pomona, Calif., has pleaded guilty to a visa fraud charge and is serving a five-year probation term.
Chowsanitphon told the jury that he first offered to give Alec Sou $1,500 for every Thai worker that Aloun Farms hired. In a later meeting at a Bangkok hotel, Chowsanitphon upped the offer to $2,500, he testified.
“How did Alec Sou respond?” Asst. U.S. Atty. Susan Cushman asked.
“Initially he didn’t respond, but towards the end he agreed. He touched my hand and agreed he was going to do it,” the witness said.
After 44 Thai workers arrived at Aloun Farms in September 2004, Alec Sou complained that the $2,500-per-worker fees hadn’t been transferred to his bank account, according to Chowsanitphon.
Sou balked at paying more than $9 per hour to the Thais, the rate required under federal rules for visiting farm workers, according to Chowsanitphon.
“Alec was worried about the wage of the workers. He talked about how he didn’t have to pay $9 for the workers,” the witness said.
When the foreign laborers arrived, they were unhappy to discover that instead of being paid an expected $1,800 per month, they would receive $1,200 – and a further $200 would be deducted for monthly food expenses, the witness said.
Sou also told Chowsanitphon that he wanted to keep the passports of the farm workers once they arrived here so that they “would not run away,” the witness said.
“I told him right away that was against the law,” Chowsanitphon said.