A federal judge granted a request by prosecutors this morning to dismiss the forced labor charges and related counts against brothers Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms.
In the stunning announcement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman told U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and the local U.S. Attorneys Office were asking for the dismissal “in the interests of justice.”
Mollway granted the request to permanently dismiss the case.
“The case is closed,” she said.
Cushman said the decision to drop the case was made after discussions last night and this morning with the Justice Department’s civil rights division in Washington D.C.
“It’s the right thing to do,” U. S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni said.
The dismissal came before the start of what would have been the fourth day of a trial that was expected to span more than a month.
Asked how he felt, Alec Sou said, “Super-elated, man. It’s like 10 tons of watermelon lifted off my shoulder.”
The Sous’ lawyers were also elated.
“This confirms what we believed all along that this prosecution was baselesss and without merit,” Mike Sou’s attorney Thomas Otake said.
Two brothers who run one of Hawaii’s largest vegetable farms are going to trial this week on federal charges they illegally shipped 44 workers from Thailand, housed them in dirty metal containers and forced them to work for little pay.
Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms each face up to 20 years in prison without parole if found guilty after they backed out of a plea deal last September that came with a five-year maximum sentence. The trial opens with jury selection Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors claim the Sou brothers gamed the United States’ guest-worker visa system in a way that economically trapped the rural north Thailand laborers on the 3,000-acre Oahu farm, which grows a variety of foods including lettuce, apples, bananas, parsley, watermelon and pumpkin year-round in Hawaii’s mild climate.
Hawaii is cracking down on prostitution and worker exploitation by passing new laws amid the nation’s largest-ever human trafficking case.
Hawaii was one of only four states lacking a labor trafficking law or a sex trafficking law before Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the measures this week, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington-based advocacy group against human trafficking.
The new laws are being enacted as the federal government is already prosecuting labor recruiting company Global Horizons on accusations of oppressing hundreds of Thai laborers by bringing them to farms in the U.S., failing to pay them for work performed, putting them into debt, confiscating their passports and threatening to deport them. A separate federal case involves similar allegations against Hawaii’s second-largest farm, Aloun Farms.
The laws also empower police to more strongly combat prostitution when world leaders from 21 countries meet in Honolulu in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
After years of opposing a human trafficking law, law enforcement joined forces with advocates to get a proposal approved by the Legislature and governor.
Federal prosecutors want to introduce new allegations during the trial for the owners of Aloun Farms that they had a history of subjecting impoverished Thai agricultural laborers to oppressive working and living conditions.
The government says in court documents that Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou, awaiting trial in federal court on forced labor and related charges, had abused impoverished Thai workers before.
The Sou brothers are scheduled to stand trial next month on charges in connection with the importation of 44 farm laborers from Thailand to work on their farm in 2004. They are accused of importing the workers under false pretenses, having their passports confiscated when they arrived, underpaying them, restricting their movements and forcing them to live in crowded or substandard housing.
The federal prosecutor says in court documents the Sous subjected other Thai farm laborers to the same conditions in 2003 when they hired the workers from Los Angeles-based labor contracting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc.
LOS ANGELES >> An administrative law judge has ordered a Los Angeles-area temporary workforce provider to pay more than $340,000 for failing to properly pay Thai farmworkers in Hawaii and for violating their rights.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced the ruling against Global Horizons Inc., which is also under scrutiny for alleged human-trafficking violations.
The Labor Department said today that Administrative Law Judge William Dorsey ordered the company to pay $153,000 in back wages to 88 temporary farmworkers and $194,000 in fines.
The department says Global Horizons failed to pay employees for all their work and retaliated against those who complained, among other violations.
The company stopped doing business in 2006.
Company President Mordechai Orian denies the allegations and says he has appealed. He is facing criminal prosecution in Hawaii.
A federal judge has ordered the return of $196,000 the operators of Aloun Farms had previously paid as restitution for 24 Thai workers they are accused of exploiting.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou paid the money in August after they pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit forced labor in connection with the importation of 44 farm workers from Thailand.
The money was not distributed but held by the court. It was to be distributed to up to 24 workers at $8,000 each worker. At the time the Sous agreed to pay the restitution, the government had identified 21 workers as victims of human trafficking.
The $8,000 represented up to half of the upfront money the workers paid recruiters to get the farm jobs on Aloun Farms.
The Sous withdrew their guilty pleas last month and are scheduled to go to trial next month.
The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest farm are looking to get back $192,000 from the federal court clerk in Honolulu.
The money was to have been divided among 24 Thai farm workers under a plea agreement initially accepted by Alec Sou and his brother Mike Sou of Aloun Farms.
But a federal judge rejected the deal because the Sous disputed some of the facts they had previously acknowledged in the plea agreement. They then changed their pleas to not guilty.
The human trafficking trial of the owners of Aloun Farms in Kapolei is set to begin Nov. 9. In all, they are accused of exploiting 44 imported laborers from Thailand.
In 2008, there were 202 requests (more than twice the number of requests in 2006 and 2007), and 137 of those were approved.
Across the nation in 2009, 5,177 workers entered the U.S. under the
H-2A program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The problem is supply versus demand.
“If Hawaii is going to increase its agricultural sector, somebody’s gonna have to do the work in the fields,” said Mae Nakahata, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 1,600 members in the local agricultural industry. “A lot of the local people don’t want to do that type of work, so where is that labor going to come from?”
Nakahata said many farms are tiny, family operations that can’t handle the workload by themselves.
“A lot of our farmers are dependent on second and third parties to get their labor because they’re not large companies,” Nakahata said. “They depend on the contractor, and that the contractor is doing its job correctly.”
Many local farms relied on Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Los Angeles-based recruiting contractor whose president and associates are now accused in what’s been called the largest human trafficking scheme ever prosecuted in the U.S.
Federal investigators allege that Global Horizons, headed by Mordechai Orian, hired Thai workers under false promises of high wages, but later revoked their traveling documents and violated their rights.
The Global Horizons case involves about 400 farmers who passed through Hawaii from May 2004 through September 2005. The case includes 14 farms around the state, including Maui Pineapple Farms, Aloun Farms, Del Monte Hawaii and the Kauai Coffee Co.
None of the farms is being accused of wrongdoing in the case. Aloun Farms’ owners face trial in a separate case involving 44 Thai workers who claim to have been abused.
“Local farms are in a tough situation now,” said Nakahata. “How do you evaluate whether the contract you’re going for is legitimate?
The owners of Aloun Farms withdrew their guilty pleas to conspiring to commit forced labor this morning after a federal judge rejected their plea agreements.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou are now scheduled to go on trial in November on charges that they allegedly exploited 44 workers imported from Thailand in 2004.
They could face more charges because the federal prosecutor said the Sous had pleaded guilty on the eve of a new indictment alleging additional crimes.
Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the plea deal because the brothers disputed some of the facts in the human trafficking case.
They had faced up to five years in prison under the agreement that was thrown out.
The Sous admitted to violations of the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, but they deny withholding passports and threatening deportation.
The Sous had asked for a lighter sentence with little or no jail time based in part on the idea that their farm is too valuable to the islands’ food supply to let it go untended.
The brothers were convicted of shipping 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their farm, part of a pipeline to the United States that allegedly cornered foreign field hands into low-paying jobs with few rights.
“The incarceration of Alec and Mike Sou would threaten our food security and could endanger our future sustainability on Oahu,” wrote Kioni Dudley, president of the community group Friends of Makakilo, in a letter asking U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway for leniency. “Find some method of punishment which allows them to stay in their positions at Aloun Farms.”