BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Human trafficking victims from Thailand in Hawaii’s U.S. District Court last Thursday expected to see two of their former bosses – Michael Mankone Sou and Alec Souphone Sou of Aloun Farms – sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.
The Thai workers also counted on an estimated $192,000 settlement (or $8,000 each for 24 of the workers) from the Sous to help defray money they lost when they were forced to pay high recruitment fees in Thailand. Some of them are on the verge of losing family homes and farms in Thailand because the bank is about to foreclose on their loans.
But yesterday, defense attorneys for the Sous asked the court to give back the $192,000 that was supposed to be mailed to the workers last Friday.
Last Thursday, at what was supposed to be a federal sentencing hearing, District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the Sous’ January guilty plea to one forced labor conspiracy count each.
Defense attorneys Eric Seitz and Howard Luke claim that not everything their clients had pled guilty to in the plea agreement was accurate. They told the judge that federal agents threatened to pursue the Sous for additional charges if they did not admit to a single conspiracy charge, and while their clients bear some guilt, they believe they will prove their clients’ innocence for most of the allegations. They both blame 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.
Mollway threw out their plea reluctantly, pointing out she has taken action like this only one other time in her 12-year-judicial career.
Neither side objected: U.S. Justice Department Attorney Susan French says her agency has additional evidence to use against the Sous. They have additional evidence they can use to strengthen or add charges to the Sou brothers’ case, gained from another indictment last week of Global Horizon recruitment company’s 6 executives.
The federal government could add to the original three charges filed against the Sous in August 2009, which accused the brothers and one of the recruiters, William Khoo, of forced labor, document servitude and visa fraud related to trafficking 44 workers from Thailand.
Prosecutors say Global worked with Aloun Farms and about a dozen other Hawaii farms to recruit workers in Hawaii, before Aloun severed its relationship and recruited on its own. Six Global workers were charged with human trafficking on September 2, 2010.
Seitz and Luke asked for a trial. They put the court on notice last Thursday that the Sous would request the victim compensation back because they’d need the money for their defense.
An ending to this 6-year saga will not likely come this year. A trial date has been set for November 9, 2010, however attorneys in the case believe it could take up to a year to go to trial.
That is a shock to 45-year-old Thai national Sam Khanja, who sat in on the sentencing hearing Thursday with his wife Joanna Thakhamhor.
Khanja, one of 44 workers brought from Thailand in 2004 to work on the Asian vegetable farm, says when he and his peers arrived in the islands in 2004, they were met with crowded housing conditions that the U.S. Justice Department has deemed “deplorable”, and not paid what they were promised.
Prosecutors say the workers were illegally forced to pay their own airfare, their passports were confiscated, they were not paid what they were owed, and they were kept from the outside world via escorts, strict rules and the threat of deportation.
The original 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.
Federal guidelines say the Sou brothers could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines for just the forced labor charge alone. Federal guidelines dictate that Alec could face even more additional time in prison because of his two DUI convictions in 2005 and 2008.
Attorney Clare Hanusz, who along with Melissa Vincenty, represent 28 of the 44 Thai workers in a pending civil case, say the Sous could face many more years in prison since they will now go to trial. She says the evidence against the Sous is substantial.
“I think the Sou brothers are looking at a lot more jail time than they were facing before,” Hanusz says.
Many of the workers, who borrowed up to $20,000 to pay the recruitment fees, are in desperate need of the money to pay down their loans, Hunusz says. Many of Hanusz clients are suffering tremendous financial hardship because of the Sous and they were relieved the money was coming, she says. However, Hanusz points out that now the fees may go to the defense lawyers instead of the victims.
Khanja is just one worker who will lose his family’s home and farm if the now $33,000 loan to the Thai banks is not repaid in full by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Mike Sou’s attorney, Eric Seitz, is pushing for his client to be released from home detention until the trial.
Sou is under house arrest since early June and has a “no contact” order with witnesses. Federal documents say he tried 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.
Seitz said in a June 23, 2010, statement to Hawaii Reporter that the accusations are untrue and unfounded.
When walking out of court Thursday with his brother by his side, Alec Sou told the media he is prepared for more charges to be filed against them: “Their intent is to just rip the whole family and rip the business. I know. We have seen many lies in their accusations and it is going to be more of it.”
They also must prepare for the civil case that Thai workers’ attorneys will file and the worldwide negative publicity that has come from both their case and that of the Global executives.
Meanwhile, dozens of prominent bankers and business people who have either loaned the Sous money or are in business with them, and prominent Hawaii politicians including former Democratic Governors Benjamin Cayetano and John Waihee, have asked the court for leniency. They say regardless of the charges, the brothers’ farm, the largest in the state, cannot fail, and the brothers should get probation so they are allowed to continue working.
Reach Malia Zimmerman, editor of Hawaii Reporter, at Malia@hawaiireporter.com