BY JIM DOOLEY – “What a relief!” Kapolei farmer Alex Sou said to the press after the federal government dropped its long-running criminal case against him and his brother, Mike.
The brothers held a press conference on the grounds of Aloun Farms in Kapolei to thank friends, employees, customers and the
legal team that supported them when they faced up to 20 years in prison for illegal importation and exploitation of farm workers from Thailand.
Federal prosecutors dropped the charges yesterday after the Sous’ criminal trial had barely begun, saying dismissal of the case was “in the interest of justice.”
“They were wrongly accused because the lead prosecutor in the case failed to do a fair investigation,” said Thomas Bienert Jr., Alec Sou’s lawyer.
That prosecutor, U.S. Justice Department trial attorney Susan French, withdrew from the trial Tuesday after claiming health problems and acknowledging that she made misleading statements about the law to the grand jury that indicted the Sous in 2009.
“As a result of her failure to do her job, Alec and Mike wound up being under the thumb of this indictment wrongly for two years,” said Bienert.
“At the very least they are due an apology,” Bienert continued. “You would expect the government and the FBI to do the right job investigating it so that they understand the facts prior to putting someone and their family and business through all that.”
Mike Sou had little to say, other than that he’s glad the ordeal is over so that he can get back to his “favorite thing,” farming and “work on a tractor.”
But his lawyer, Thomas Otake, spoke for Mike Sou.
“This was a prosecution that had no merit to it,” he said.
“From the beginning the indictment was flawed and was just flat out wrong,” he continued. “A couple of attorneys from the Washington D.C. office flew in here, completely misunderstood the facts, completely misunderstood the law and brought these false allegations against these two brothers,” Otake said.
Bienert, a former federal prosecutor, said he plans to ask the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the handling of the case, which was prosecuted by the human trafficking office of the Civil Rights Division.
“I definitely will be asking for the Department of Justice to do a review of this case and how they screwed this case up so badly so they can learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
He also will be exploring the possibility of recovering the Sous’ legal expenses from the government and well as monetary reparations for lost business and other damages,
Both are difficult legal avenues to pursue, he acknowledged.
Alec Sou said he and his brother “certainly made some decisions without knowing all the facts”in the case.
“We know we never mistreated anybody” and “never believed we did anything wrong,” he continued.
Under pressure from the government and facing possible prison time, they pleaded guilty in the case, but couldn’t go through with the pleas when they appeared before U.S> District Judge Susan Oki Mollway.
The judge then rejected the plea deals and set the case for trial.
Some of the 44 Thai workers who were brought here to work at Aloun Farms have retained private attorneys to pursue legal actions against the Sous and Aloun Farms.
Otake said he hopes that doesn’t happen.
“We would hope that any attorney would think about what happened today and think about what’s in the best interest of justice and the best interests of Hawaii before they make decisions to perhaps being civil lawsuits to try and perhaps make some money of their own,” he said.
Neither lawyer could say precisely what convinced the government to drop the criminal case.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said the decision hinged on evidence given to the government last Friday by the defense, but Otake couldn’t figure out what that evidence was.
“I don’t believe we gave them anything on Friday that’s any different than anything we’ve ever given them in the past,” he said.
He speculated that the cumulative weight of defense arguments and documents may have finally convinced the government to drop the case.
“They ultimately did the right thing,” he said.