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Farm owners face visa counts


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POSTED: Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aloun Farm owners Alec and Mike Sou pleaded not guilty in federal court yesterday to conspiracy and visa fraud charges stemming from the importation of 44 workers from Thailand to work for the Ewa farm.

Federal authorities allege the Sou brothers lied on visa applications to import the workers and, once they arrived, took their passports, forced them to work for wages less than promised and restricted their contact with others.

A federal grand jury returned an indictment Thursday charging the Sous and Thai labor recruiter William Khoo with conspiring to commit forced labor and visa fraud.

The Sous have until next week to each post $10,000 cash of a $100,000 bond to continue to remain free pending trial in October.

Khoo was not in court yesterday. U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang issued a warrant for his arrest.

A fourth man, California businessman Matee Chowsanitphon, pleaded guilty yesterday to failing to report his knowledge of the visa fraud and is cooperating with the government.

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Alec Sou had been aware an indictment was pending and made himself available to the government, his lawyer Howard Luke said.

The 44 workers each paid an upfront $16,000 recruitment fee for what were supposed to be temporary jobs, said Susan French, trial attorney with the Justice Department's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. The money paid for the workers' airfare and visa applications, she said. Khoo, local Thai recruiting companies, the Sous, Chowsanitphon and an unnamed co-conspirator allegedly split the rest.

The workers paid the fee with loans secured with their homes and subsistence farm lands, according to the indictment.

Chowsanitphon, 55, traveled to Thailand in 2003, brokered an agreement for Khoo to provide workers to Aloun Farm and escorted the workers to Hawaii in 2004, according to his plea agreement.

He received $5,500 per worker, the indictment said.

“;I did not disclose this information in the application and put the money in somebody else's account,”; Chowsanitphon said.

The U.S. Department of Labor's guest worker program prohibits requiring workers to pay recruitment commission. It also requires employers to pay for the workers' airfare to the U.S., transportation, their housing, food or access to groceries and cooking facilities.

The Sous deducted from the workers' earnings money to pay for their housing, meals and payments for their high-interest bank loans in Thailand to pay for their recruitment fees, leaving them with little or no net pay, the indictment said.