Farm owners plead guilty
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou face maximum penalties of five years in federal prison and fines of $250,000 after pleading guilty yesterday to illegally importing farm laborers from Thailand in 2004 and 2005.
"We're talking about forced servitude. It's really a pretty serious case," said Melissa Vincenty, a private attorney representing some of the Thai laborers.
The Sou brothers were indicted last year on charges including conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude.
In plea agreement s reached with the U.S. Justice Department, they each pleaded guilty to single counts of conspiracy to commit forced labor.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang accepted the pleas yesterday and said sentencing will take place in June before Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway.
Aloun Farms is a large, well-known agricultural business that produces Asian vegetables, melons and other crops on some 3,000 acres of land in the Kapolei area.
Federal laws covering the hiring of immigrant farm laborers are complex and "the facts of this case are very complicated," said Howard Luke, defense lawyer for Alec Sou, president of Aloun Farms.
The Sou brothers are remorseful for their actions and will cooperate in a continuing investigation of the case here and in Thailand, Luke said.
Aloun Farms, which employs some 150 to 200 workers, had made "substantial charitable contributions" in Hawai'i, Luke said.
"The farm will survive. It's going to be a tough road," Luke said.
According to the plea agreements, read aloud in court by attorney Kevonne Small of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the Sous worked with Thai labor recruiters to bring 44 laborers here under false pretenses.
The workers had to pay $16,000 apiece to their recruiters and believed that they would be working at Aloun Farms for about three years.
In reality, their visas were only valid for two months and were later extended another three months.
Some of the workers were housed in substandard quarters and weren't paid for months after the Sous deducted expenses for such items as housing, food, transportation and taxes from their wages, according to the government.
Many of the workers were married with children and had pledged their homes and property in Thailand as security to repay the recruitment fees, according to court records.
About 24 of the Thai workers are still in the Islands. Private attorneys Vincenty and Clare Hanusz represent the legal interests of 22 of them.
The farm laborers have remained here to cooperate in the federal investigation of the Sous and have been granted temporary visas and work permits while still here.
"They're still separated from their families," Hanusz said. "They agreed to come here, to work hard and then to go home.
"That's not what happened."
The workers complained in 2007 to state authorities, including the Department of Labor, about their mistreatment at Aloun Farms but "nothing happened," Vincenty said.
Finally, the lawyers said, they heard about the case and went to the FBI with it in November 2008.