HONOLULU – The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest farm face new federal charges that they exploited dozens of Thai workers by lying about their wages and confining them to the farm.
A federal grand jury re-indicted brothers Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms on charges that they lured the Thai workers to Hawaii with false promises of high wages, and then kept them working by threatening deportation and confiscating their visas.
The Sous initially reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors but then disputed some of the facts they had earlier acknowledged. Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway last month rejected the deal, and the Sous instead pleaded not guilty.
The Sous would have faced up to five years in prison under that agreement.
Now, the Sous could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the new charges handed down Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Sous said Thursday that they would plead not guilty today to all 12 counts.
“They maintain their innocence,” said Eric Seitz, an attorney for Alec Sou, the farm’s president and general manager.
The Sou brothers likely will go to trial instead of seeking another plea deal, said Howard Luke, an attorney for Mike Sou, the farm’s vice president and operations manager.
An earlier grand jury levied similar charges against the Sous in a three-count indictment handed down in August 2009.
They’re accused of shipping 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their farm. The workers were allegedly promised wages of $9.60 an hour, but they were told once they arrived in Hawaii that they would be paid $5 or $6 an hour.
The indictment also claims the workers were housed in storage containers without plumbing and their freedom of movement was limited. If they complained, they allegedly were threatened with deportation, with no way to repay debts for recruitment fees reaching $20,000.
An attorney for some of the Thai workers, Clare Hanusz, said the facts will come out in court.
“By taking this case to trial, it allows for all of this information to come out,” she said.
A third man, Siew Khiong Khoo of Thai Taipei Manpower Co., also is charged.
His attorney, Stuart Fujioka, said Khoo is outside the country and won’t enter a plea today.