HONOLULU – The owners of Hawaii's second-largest farm accused of exploiting 44 imported laborers from Thailand changed their plea to not guilty Thursday rather than face a possible prison sentence up to five years.
The human trafficking trial of Alec Sou and Mike Sou is scheduled for Nov. 9, when they could face additional charges and much more severe penalties if convicted.
The brothers, who operate Aloun Farms on Oahu, were indicted last year on accusations that they shipped the workers from Thailand, housed them in deplorable conditions and forced them to work for little or no pay.
Their change in pleas came after Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway took the rare step of rejecting a plea deal because the Sous disputed some of the facts they had previously acknowledged in the plea agreement.
Alec Sou, the farm's president and general manager, said prosecutors and the Thai workers are trying to destroy Aloun Farms, which is a key source of vegetables to the isolated islands' food supply.
"Their intent is just to rip the whole family and rip the business," he said following the court hearing. "We see many lies in their accusations."
The Sous acknowledged violations of the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, but they denied mistreating workers, underpaying them or withholding their passports to confine them to the Kapolei-based farm.
The judge told the Sous to be prepared for long potential prison terms if a jury finds them guilty at trial.
"Ultimately, what happens to you conceivably could be worse than what would have been under the plea agreement," Mollway said.
Somporn Khanja, who arrived at the farm in 2004, said he and other Thai workers had hoped for closure Thursday, but instead they'll have to wait for justice.
"I'm not scared because there's evidence against the Sou brothers, and we have a lot of facts to go against them," said Khanja, the leader of the group, with his wife acting as his interpreter. "I wanted it to be ended today."
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on their chances at trial.
The indictment claimed the Sous manipulated the Thai workers by promising at least a year's employment at pay of $9.42 an hour but instead delivered only a few months of work for little pay.
If the workers complained, they were threatened to be sent home without any way to repay recruitment fees exceeding $20,000 that they borrowed from Thai money lenders to pay for their jobs, according to federal authorities.
The violations the Sou brothers acknowledged include failing to make required payments for the workers' airfare, telling the workers they could be returned to Thailand if they didn't follow farm rules, and participating in a conspiracy with Thai labor recruiters, their attorneys said in court, before the plea deal was canceled.
But the plea agreement also included allegations the Sous dispute — that the workers' passports were taken for "enslaving" them, that their housing in mobile storage containers was inadequate and that they weren't paid, said Howard Luke, Mike Sou's attorney.
"We're going to trial," said Eric Seitz, Alec Sou's attorney. "It's the client's decision, and as long as that's what they want to do, that's what we'll do."
Aloun Farms' 3,000 acres are the most productive in the islands, growing crops year-round in Hawaii's mild climate.
About 120 supporters of the Sous had written the judge asking for leniency based in part on the idea that their farm is too valuable to the islands to let it go untended.
The Sous are accused of using the same tactics as those alleged in a separate indictment filed last week against labor recruiting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc., which the FBI called the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.
In that case, the Los Angeles-based company's CEO and employees are accused of shipping 400 workers from Thailand and forcing them to work on farms across the country.