Courts • Feds drop what once was called the largest human-trafficking case in U.S. history after missteps by prosecutors.
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The two Thais are strong men, but they wept Monday. One even abruptly jumped up from an interview table, darted into a corner, and buried his face there to hide and wipe tears that embarrassed him.
The pair who are among scores of Thais who say they were held in modern slavery in Utah became emotional talking about prosecutors dismissing what the U.S. Justice Department had once called the largest human-trafficking case in U.S. history.
The Thais in Utah thought they helped break that case against labor-recruiting company Global Horizons, and mistakenly believed that it would lead to prison terms for company officials they view as slave masters.
"There is no doubt in my mind that I was enslaved," said "Tom" through an interpreter. He uses a pseudonym because he believes as does his Utah Legal Services attorney, Alex McBean that talking about it publicly could still endanger his relatives in Thailand.
"The poor, no matter how loudly they speak, no one hears them. No one listens to them because they are viewed as unimportant," Tom said about the dismissal. "There is no question this means other companies will continue to do the same thing," and trap others in slavery.
Federal prosecutors in Hawaii a week ago dismissed the human-trafficking case against leaders of Global Horizons, including its chief executive, Mordechai Orian, and the company's director of international relations, Pranee Tubchumpol. Three others earlier pleaded guilty.
The dismissal came after missteps by prosecutors.
In a separate-but-related case against owners of Aloun Farms in Hawaii, which used Global Horizons workers, federal prosecutor Susan French conceded she had inaccurately told a grand jury that brought charges that it was illegal in 2004 to charge foreign workers recruitment fees. Such fees were not outlawed by Congress until 2008.
Thais say they paid recruitment fees of $20,000 to $25,000 which required them to mortgage farms, and take out high-interest loans. Desperate Thais did that to obtain jobs they believed would be lucrative over several years. But if they lost the jobs, their families could lose everything making workers endure what they say became slavery.
After French's misstep, the government dismissed the case against Aloun Farms last year, and began an investigation into the case against Global Horizons officials.
Global Horizons case dismissed • A week ago, prosecutors filed a dismissal order saying that because of that investigation, "the government has determined that dismissal of this matter is in the interest of justice, because the government is unable to prove the elements of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt."
"We don't believe they ever did have a case. They poured millions of dollars of government taxpayer money into this case, and they've got nothing," said Michael Green, lawyer for Orian in Honolulu.
"This is supposed to be the biggest case in the country of its kind.... And they've got no case," Green told The Tribune on Monday. "Here's a guy who wins a moral victory. What about the rest of his life? What they did was outrageous."
Still, the dismissal upsets Thais who worked for Global Horizons in Utah, who insist they endured slavery.
"All my travel documents were taken away from me the first day I arrived in this country" by Global Horizons, Tom says, noting that meant he could not return home if he wanted. "I could not go to buy things I needed like food without proper ID," so he could go only when company officials took him.
"They made us work like slaves," he said, noting payments often were late and not for amounts promised, living conditions were rough, and workers were banned from talking to outsiders. "People watched over us all the time like we were criminals. I felt like I was in jail" while he worked for the company in Hawaii, Washington and Utah.
"Danny," another Thai, cried remembering his wife who died of cancer in Thailand while he was financially trapped in America and Global Horizons had confiscated his travel documents.
"I had no way of helping my family at one point. I had no money. I had no legal rights. My wife was left in Thailand with cancer. She needed me very, very badly. She needed money. She needed support. I couldn't be there for her," and she died while he was away.
'Hilton' never promised • But Green, Orian's attorney, said, "I have no idea what they are upset about. The conditions here certainly were not substandard.... They had better pay [in America] than they ever had there. They had all kinds of benefits here. And they were offered the right to stay in the United States if they testified against my client."
He added, "I don't know if they thought they were going to hold them at the Hilton, but these are farm workers. It was a safe place to live. They had income."
Thais in Utah say they escaped their situation when Global quit paying them at one point, and some managed to seek help from McBean at Utah Legal Services, who looked into their plight.
Many had been working at Circle Four hog farms in Milford. Thais said they had no problem with it, but quit working there when Global quit paying them. So Circle Four questioned Global about what it had been doing with money it was paying for salaries. It eventually sued Global, and Thais who worked there were included in a financial settlement.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a separate civil suit against Global Horizons pending seeking back wages for former employees.
Meanwhile, McBean helped the Thais obtain "T-visas" as victims of human trafficking who agreed to work with law enforcement. The visas allowed them to stay in the country, and allows them eventually to become permanent residents or citizens.
While Danny now a cook in a Thai restaurant and Tom an auto mechanic say they are thankful for living in America, they do not feel justice has been served.
Questioning justice • "If it happened to you, would you think this is justice?" Tom asked. Danny added that other Utah Thais who had worked for Global and heard about the dismissal "are all sad. They are all disappointed, but we have to support the government decision."
McBean, their attorney, says the government heard stories about slavery conditions from hundreds of Global Horizon workers. He said the fact the case was dropped anyway shows how tough convictions for human trafficking may be when other easier-to-prove crimes of violence are not involved at the same time.
He suggests that Congress consider one fix in the immigration system that could help stop such cases among agricultural cases.
"The reason these people were exploited is they had a visa that allowed them to work for only one employer," he said. McBean suggests changing that to allow temporary agricultural workers to work for anyone they choose, to allow leaving a company that is mistreating or underpaying them.
He said the current system "leaves workers completely at the mercy of their employer."