BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Sam Wongsesanit, who Thai workers say was once one of the most feared supervisors on Hawaii’s farms earning him the name “Bad Sam”, faced a federal judge Tuesday to admit to being part of a forced labor conspiracy.
The 40-year-old former field supervisor for the Los Angeles-based Global Horizons Manpower Company, who was born in Los Angeles and speaks both Thai and English, was supposed to act as the intermediary for the hundreds of workers that Global brought to America from Thailand when he was employed by the company from May 2004 to January 2008.
Instead, the workers say he intimidated and threatened them, even when they were too sick to work, by using the threat of deportation, and he got into a physical confrontation at Maui Pine that severely injured one worker and left others even more fearful of Wongsesanit.
“Sam’s name came up frequently as someone our clients truly feared,” said Clare Hanusz, an immigration attorney representing more than 100 Thai workers in civil litigation.
Despite a prominent role in keeping Thai workers from running away from what the FBI has called the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history, and originally being charged with 6 counts ( including 2 counts of each of conspiracy to engage in enforced labor, conspiracy to commit document servitude and document servitude), the U.S. Justice Department allowed him to plead guilty to one count of document servitude. Prosecutors also won’t seek charges against him for bodily injury or use of a dangerous weapon, said prosecutor Susan Cushman.
In a brief statement, Wongsesanit, who is represented by public defender Alexander Silvert, told the judge he’d confiscated passports of the Thai workers to keep them from running away. He said at first he did not know that was illegal, but he now takes responsibility for his actions.
A June 14, 2011, plea agreement read in court states that Wongsesanit knew the Thai workers did not want to give up their passports but were afraid to voice their concerns because they did not want to be deported after borrowing as much as $20,000 to pay Thai recruiters to come to the United States. Wongsesanit also conducted a roll call and bed check at night to ensure no Thai workers ran away.
He could face up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and he may have to pay restitution to the victims. He will be sentenced on October 3, 2011, by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway.
In exchange for his guilty plea, Wongsesanit will cooperate with the government in its case against other defendants charged with conspiring to keep as indentured laborers more than 600 workers on farms in Hawaii, California, Washington and other states.
While his sentence is lighter than he could have faced at trial, Hanusz said this resolution is vindication for the workers that their stories were taken seriously and that this investigation was taken seriously. “He will have his liberties restrained as they had their liberties restrained,” Hanusz said.
While eight people were indicted in the conspiracy, three have already plead guilty to reduced charges and agreed to cooperate with the government.
Hawaii supervisor Shane Germann on Wednesday, May 4, recited details of crimes he said he committed in Hawaii between May 2003 and February 2006 as the on site manager and regional supervisor for Global Horizons. If not for the plea to one count of conspiracy to knowingly holding Thai nationals in document servitude violating the forced labor statute, Germann could have been imprisoned for 30 years. With the guilty plea, Germann could spend up to 5 years in prison and 3 years on probation as well as pay a $250,000 fine and restitution to the victims.
Global Horizons Operations Manager Bruce Schwartz, who faced up to 10 years in prison, first withdrew his not guilty plea – U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway will sentence him on September 12.
The remaining defendants have maintained their innocence. That includes Global CEO Mordechai Yosef Orian and managers Pranee Tubchumpol, Ratawan Chunharutai and Podjanee Sinchai, who were indicted on January 14, 2011. A 10-count superseding indictment against defendants Joseph Knoller was issued January 14, 2011.
Prosecutors allege the defendants promised the Thai workers high-paying jobs in the United States. Some paid fees as high as $21,000 to secure U.S. jobs, putting up family farms in Thailand as collateral. But once they arrived in the U.S., the workers’ passports were confiscated and they were threatened by their handlers. Nearly all of the 600 alleged victims were forced to work on farms in Hawaii before being moved to farms in other states. A trial for the other defendants in the case is scheduled for February 2012.
Global Horizon CEO Mordechai Orian told Hawaii Reporter in an earlier interview that the workers are lying to authorities because they want to live and work in America where they can take $2,000 a month instead of $60 a month back home. Orian is confident that he will be found not guilty of all of the criminal accusations and will be vindicated in the end.
Today, he issued the following statement to Hawaii Reporter.
“Concerning Sam Wongsesanit’s plea, he and his lawyer made a strategic decision that they felt, under his particular circumstances, was best for Sam. His plea has no bearing whatsoever on what really happened and why, inasmuch as his goal in settling with the government was to avoid going to trial for reasons that are between Sam and his lawyer.
“I, on the contrary, am looking forward to my trial because I know that the reasons the passports were collected were perfectly legal and otherwise legitimate in every other respect. Global Horizons, Inc. (I personally was absolutely not the employer) brought the first group of H2-A workers to Hawaii in 2003. They all had their passports, Social Security Cards, as well as (in some cases) California and Hawaii State Identification Cards. One day, ICE picked them up and put them in detention even though each had 10 days left on their visas, and took their visas.
“Global immediately filed a mandamus action to force the Government to release them immediately. In order to settle that matter, and to allow the INS to save face, we agreed that they could leave the country and return later, which is exactly what happened. They left in April of 2003 and returned that August to another of Global’s clients in the state of Georgia. During the time they were in Thailand, each worker went through extensive interviews with the Thai Ministry of Labor, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the US Embassy, all of whom made sure that each worker received all of his pay.
“During their time in Georgia, their passports were stolen. This created a nightmare scenario for our company, since our whole business relied upon the workers having valid visas, and without a passport we could not apply for extensions to them within the very short time frame – a maximum of 15 days – that in reality was allowed by the US government. The INS required each worker, in order to get a valid I-94 permit to allow them to stay in the US, to allow the copying of each original page of their passport.
“Because of this requirement, we obtained approval in writing (in Thai) to hold their passports for safekeeping so that when the time came to need to renew their I-94 permit to stay in the US, we could do so without worrying whether each worker’s passport was stolen or lost, since the time period, as I stated earlier, that the US government allows to extend the visa is in reality a maximum of 15 days so that there was absolutely no room for error. Without getting the workers’ visa extensions in a timely manner, we would have no business. Global Horizons was responsible for maintaining the legality of our guest workers – the whole idea behind H2-A. This was the only thing we cared about and was the only reason we took possession of the passports.
“Every time a worker absconded, we had to send the Thai Embassy their passport. When they had to move from one area of the country to another, they all had their passports in hand because it was required. Later, in 2006, when we entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) with the UFW, we gave the Union possession of the passports under that CBA.
“Sam W was one of many supervisors working for Global Horizons. In my view, he plead guilty to something that was not criminal in intent in any way, but again, Sam and his lawyer had their own reasons that I am obviously not privy to. I do know this: that the allegation that Global’s employees, including Sam, somehow figuratively or otherwise held a gun to the workers’ heads to take possession of their passports is just completely wrong for the reasons set forth above.
“My attorney Randy Shiner and I were in a trial before USDOL Administrative Law Judge Steven B. Berlin this past Monday, June 13. The principal investigator, Phillipda Modrakee, testified clearly that she had “perfect access” to the workers at all times while conducting her investigation. If all of what they allege in the indictment is true, why didn’t the workers complain to her then – in 2005- that they were being exploited or abused?
“That they waited until Plaintiff’s lawyers and the DOJ surrounded them is a significant fact, since each complaining worker would be eligible for a “T” Visa (victim of human trafficking) making them eligible for permanent residency which would thereby allow not only them, but their whole family to immigrate legally to the US.
“Very importantly, Ms. Modrakee’s own documents state quite clearly in particular that there were NO housing violations. Zero. That they complained much, much later to Plaintiff’s lawyers and related horror stories such as appear in the media, is, to understate it, suspect. I am attaching a copy of the USDOL document for your reference. It was entered as Exhibit 16 at the DOL hearing this past Monday. The rest of the violations contained in that document are being contested.
“I am a businessman. It was completely against my and my company’s financial interest to terrorize the workers, since the only way Global Horizons made any money is if the workers were in the fields harvesting pineapple. And that their visas remained valid, since our farmer clients were paying a premium – a total of between $14-$16 per hour – for legal labor to comply with the law that forbids the knowing hire of illegal workers who make far, far less money and who are not provided free housing and round-trip tickets to and from their country of origin. Exploited workers are not productive. This is not to mention the fact that it is just plain wrong to do the things that they allege I did either in my personal or corporate capacity. They did not happen.”
Even if Orian and the remaining defendants beat the charges, Global Horizons is now defunct and facing a number of other legal challenges.
An administrative judge in Los Angeles last month ordered Global Horizons to pay $194,000 in fines and $152,000 in back wages to 88 Thai workers brought to Hawaii in 2003 to work at Aloun Farms and Del Monte. The 146-page decision issued by Administrative Law Judge William Dorsey found Global Horizons and its Orian liable for 11 categories of violations of the federal H-2A temporary non-immigrant agricultural laborer program. The DOL is seeking back wage payments for the Thai workers, penalty assessments for the federal government and a mandatory three-year debarment for Orian and his businesses from participation in the H-2A program.
Global Horizon CEO Orian told Hawaii Reporter he has already appealed the administrative ruling to the DOL Administrative Review Board and looks forward to vindication in a year or longer in “real court of law with a real judge.” Randy Shiner, a San Diego civil attorney representing Orian, told Hawaii Reporter that “It is more than likely that the Administrative Review Board will uphold ALJ Dorsey’s ruling,” but he and his client intend to appeal it and will receive a brand new trial at the District Court level.
In a separate civil case filed April 20, 2011, Global Horizons and 6 Hawaii farms and two mainland farms are facing civil charges from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for alleged labor abuses involving 200 Thai workers. The commission wants back pay as much as $300,000 in damages for each worker who they said had their rights violated when they had their passports confiscated and were threatened with deportation and violence if they complained about poor housing and working conditions.
The case against Global Horizons is one of two significant federal human trafficking cases filed in Hawaii last year.
Federal prosecutors have also filed human trafficking charges against brothers Alec and Mike Sou, owners of Aloun Farms in Kapolei for allegedly forcing 44 Thai workers to work on their farms without pay. The Sou brothers originally plead guilty after making a deal with prosecutors, but the judge threw out the plea after the defendants’ new lawyers disputed some of the statements made in the plea agreement. That case goes to trial on July 27, 2011. The federal government is issuing subpoenas in this case this week.