BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Since the U.S. Department of Justice put a halt to the Aloun Farm owners’ forced labor trial last week, the public will likely never get to the bottom of at least one mystery.
If Aloun Farm owners Mike and Alec Sou were innocent as they now claim, why did they allow the airing of a video documentary in court on September 9, 2010, on their original sentencing day, that appears to present false evidence?
The background: Mike and Alec Sou, brothers who run Aloun Farms, who were charged in 2009 with forced labor and visa fraud related to the hiring of 44 men from Thailand in 2004.
The Thai workers, who worked for the Sous on their farm, told federal investigators that they paid as much as $20,000 in recruitment fees to come to America to work for the Sous for three years. They said once they arrived, they lived in crowded conditions, were underpaid and underfed. While they planned on a three-year contract, they Sous dismissed them in five months because their visas expired, leaving them unable to pay their debts. Through a plea agreement, the Sous pled guilty to one count each. On their sentencing day on September 9, 2010, two significant things happened.
The first was the Sous’ defense team showed a documentary style video of a cook, a driver and a monk, all who testified to the great care they took of the 44 workers. The video was a highly unusual legal tactic, some observers called it “bizarre”, because it introduced evidence and testimony on a the sentencing day without giving prosecutors the ability to verify the information or interview the witnesses in the video.
Noble Pilialoha was up first. He sat beside his mother, Dorothy, who dramatically dried her tears as she talked about what a wonderful cook her son is and what delicious food he prepared for the Thai workers. Noble described cooking American style food for the workers and said there was plenty of food and they never went hungry for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Their testimony was supposed to counter claims by the workers that they were underfed while employed by the Sou brothers. The workers said they were not fed breakfast and sometimes had lunch and dinner combined into one meal. If they were late getting to lunch, there often was not enough food for them, the workers said. But Noble and Dorothy dismissed the workers’ claims.
There was only one problem with Noble and Dorothy’s story. Nobel was not the Thai workers’ cook. Some of the Thai workers who had come to court to witness the Sou brothers being sentenced said Noble was not in charge of preparing their food. The workers said they actually had three cooks and Noble was not one of the three.
The Thai workers had the same story about the driver in the documentary who claimed to have escorted the workers to bars and fishing excursions. He drove the workers twice when the regular driver, Ronald, was sick, the workers said. Also the workers said they did not have time for fishing or bar hopping while working on the Sous’ farm. The Thai laborers were up at 4 a.m., got home at well past dark, and often worked seven days a week with no breaks. The man who claimed to be the driver was supposed to counter claims by the workers that their freedom of movement was restricted.
Then there was the Buddhist monk, the Honorable Monk Suthep, dressed in orange robes. He testified on video that the Sou brothers made sure that the workers, who were Buddhists, could visit him at any time. The Thai workers went to the temple when they first arrived in Hawaii to pay their respects. While they were there, they reportedly were asked by the Sou brothers to make a donation to the temple even though they had not started work yet, they were in great debt because of the recruiting fees, and impoverished. Later, if the workers went to the temple, they walked there on their own.
There are several twists in this story. After the video was shown, the Sou’s lawyers convinced Judge Susan Oki Mollway that she should throw out their guilty plea and allow them to go to trial. She did.
When the FBI learned that the Sou brothers may have introduced false evidence in court through the video, federal prosecutors added new charges to the Sous’ indictments. Federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment on October 27 after the Sous backed out of their plea deal and included accusations that the Sous “corruptly obstructed, influenced, and impeded an official proceeding” with a video “that contained false and misleading representations.” This was one of the most serious charges against them.
Then the Sou brothers’ attorneys, Eric Seitz and Howard Luke, tried to distance their clients from the video, saying they had nothing to do with it.
Howard Luke told Hawaii Reporter’s Jim Dooley: “I previously indicated publicly that I did not participate in the preparation of the video or the interviews of the witnesses on the video.”
Eric Seitz told Dooley: “I was not a party to the making of the video and it wasn’t made or presented on behalf of my client, Mike Sou.”
Another attorney, Steven Hisaka, who represented the Sous in civil litigation, was present in the September 2010 sentencing hearing and helped present the video to the court. Hisaka did not respond to email and telephone requests from Dooley for comment.
Seitz and Luke were later replaced by the Sous with Thomas Bienert and Thomas Otake and placed on the defense’s witness list.
During the opening days of the Sous’ trial, U.S. Department of Justice Trial Attorney Susan French tried to introduce evidence about the video, specifically that alleged the cook, Noble Pilialoha, has a criminal record and that the monk has a conflict of interest because he did not disclose that he operated his temple on the Sous’ property.
But the defense protested – again saying their clients had nothing to do with the video – and the judge told Prosecutor Susan French that there would be another time to bring these concerns up in court. Judge Mollway did, however, allow the video to be shown to the jury.
Noble Pilialoha, 41, is listed in the state’s “e-crim” web site, which documents his criminal record including convictions on multiple misdemeanor offenses between 1989 to 1999. He was charged 10 times and found guilty eight times for offenses ranging from contempt of court, disorderly conduct, and trespassing to unlawful imprisonment. His probation was also revoked and he was sentenced to one year confinement, according to the state records.
As it turned out, the prosecutors dismissed the case in the second week of trial because of “new evidence” disclosed by the defense. This was just after Prosecutor Susan French fell ill and withdrew from the case. Prosecutors never said what the new evidence was, nor did they say the Sous were innocent.
No additional information about the video that no one wanted to claim credit for was ever disclosed by either the prosecutors or the defense.