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The Sting — 2010

Kioni Dudley

HPI note: Who are the real victims in the Aloun Farms "slave worker" case? Unless you are unusually akamai, it's probably not who you think. And the situation has a very important aspect that has probably never occurred to you if you were born an American. On the other hand, it seems to be common knowledge among immigrants who are about to lose their visas or who are here illegally.

Kioni Dudley has done an extensive investigation into the Aloun Farms trafficking case and here gives us the eye-opening results.
by Dr. Kioni Dudley

Dr. Kioni Dudley is a retired educator and community activist. He has taken the weeks to do this research because he is aware of the essential place of Aloun Farms as a current source of fresh food, and of the critical need future generations will have for that farmland in order to survive on this island. He can be reached by email.

Part One

I loved “The Sting” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Like hundreds of millions of other moviegoers, I got suckered in, conned, and never suspected what was really going on.

I had been duped on a minor scale before. Who hadn’t? But with this 1973 movie, I came to realize there could be two totally different, contradictory, interpretations of "reality" for the same series of events. People could be set up to focus on one stream, while others, who understood what was really going on, were ripping them off, accomplishing their own goals unnoticed.

This story may eventually make the movie look tame. It may be hard to finish, because we may all have egg on our face, and we may not be proud of ourselves and our feelings.

Aloun Farms Farm Workers/photo by enaduris/Enlargement

On August 28, 2009, Hawai’i was stunned at the news that Alec and Mike Sou, owners and operators of Aloun Farms, were that day indicted on charges of human trafficking. We were told that in 2004 they had conspired with crooked recruiters in Thailand to bring 44 impoverished Thai nationals to work on the farm, pocketing a large part of a $20,000 recruitment fee, and subjecting the victims to forced labor and abuse: inhumanely housing these 44 peasant workers in a five-bedroom house that was surrounded by a high fence and locked gate, giving them little or no pay and poor food, confiscating their passports, escorting them to work and everywhere they went in public, and threatening them with deportation if they disobeyed or communicated with others.

Those who knew Alec and Mike Sou could not believe their double life: how these fine, upstanding, community-minded pioneers of diversified agriculture in Hawai’i, these donors of more than a million pounds of food to the Food Bank and over a hundred thousand pounds of food to the homeless at HIS, these creators of the famous Pumpkin Patch for urban kids, could be such scoundrels, such monsters. But the facts were all there to read. And the word was, "The feds don’t lose many cases, because they don’t make mistakes." If anyone needed more details and pictures as proof, Malia Zimmerman, who had initially uncovered the story in 2007, provided them on (

On January 13, 2010, Alec and Mike Sou confirmed their guilt to the public by signing an agreement to plead guilty. This brought renewed ugly charges in the news media, justifying and confirming public revulsion. No one but the Sous, their lawyers and the US prosecutors knew what had really taken place with the plea agreement.

There were major false charges in the plea agreement itself. But there were also important advantages to signing it. One was that two of the three initial charges against them would be dropped. They would not have to face charges of not complying with federal immigration laws when they let the men disperse.

Another was a different kind of "incentive" for them to sign. As the lawyers months later explained in court, when US Prosecutor Susan French met with them, there were many statements in the plea agreement she had drawn up which were non-negotiable, and she required them to sign onto it, as written, or face additional charges. As French herself would confirm in court on July 19, 2010, she had five additional charges in a superseding indictment in hand. Indictments are secret until the Grand Jury approves them, so no one knew what the new charges were. And paragraph 27 of the agreement guaranteed that the government would not file any additional criminal charges against them. (Memorandum of Plea Agreement 12/22/09 Document 38 p. 9)

Certainly cost must have been a consideration also. Paying fees for top lawyers to defend against eight counts would cost so many hundreds of thousands of dollars that it literally would have “cost them the farm.” Signing the agreement was the only hope of holding on.

Most importantly, the lawyers also knew that paragraph 37 of the agreement gave them the right to inform the court of all conduct related to the case which might be mitigating sentencing factors. In the following weeks, they did this, strongly disputing many of the acts and omissions attributed to them when they wrote their “Sentencing Statements.” But the press paid no attention. And it was their word against the collective word of their many accusers. (Defendant Mike Sou’s Sentencing Statement Document 54)

The sentencing of the Sou brothers was to take place on June 7, 2010. At that hearing, the prosecutor for the United States, Susan French, produced nine of the victims whom the Sous allegedly had held in forced labor. Each told their story, one-by-one. Collectively, they confirmed every accusation in the plea agreement, although not a word of it was under oath, and the Sous’ lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine them.

Lawyers for the Sous, however, then presented two of the forty-four “victims” who had continued to live on the farm since 2004, who contradicted every point the nine had made. These testimonies were made under oath. (Document 77 Sentencing Hearing Transcript for June 7, 2010 Thanakorn Mukdamuang and Kuson Thasak)

Then, the Sous' lawyers protested to the court that the US Prosecutor had withheld major “discovery” material from them, sending it only two days before, and that this material required further study. They asked for, and received, a continuance of the hearing for a month later, on July 19.

Part Two
How the Indictment and Plea Charges Came About

Before looking at that late-arriving material, let’s review how the charges were initially arrived at. A year or so after the workers left the farm, complaints were filed and the FBI was called upon to conduct interviews. The case does not seem to have been developed through careful, open-minded investigation and fair evaluation of the facts that were uncovered. Instead, because the FBI was requested to investigate possible human trafficking, interview questions were geared to building a case that was a good fit to sections of established federal law on conspiracy and trafficking. Like a self-fulfilling wish, the results of this process were pre-determined.

“Title 18 of the US Code Section 371: Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud United States or an agency of the United States” required a conspiracy, so one was "determined."

In 2004, when Alec Sou needed workers for the farm, he went to Thailand. He had met William Khoo the year before, and thought he was a straight shooter. Khoo agreed to recruit and bring 44 workers to Hawaii. Khoo worked with Mattee Chowsanitphon, who was licensed in California to bring Thai workers to America, and who was introduced to Alec before he left. Alec knew Khoo would charge a high recruitment fee, but recruitment fees far above the law were common in Thailand. Alec received no part of the recruitment fee. Alec gave the power of attorney to an expert in drawing up contracts for the workers, then left Thailand. When he left, he thought the recruitment fee would be around US$8,000. However, unknown to him, two other companies with which Mattee was associated had become involved, Udon NT and their mother company, KS. One of their employees was Mr. Oh, who is often mentioned in witness statements. Alec had no contact with either of those companies and has never met Mr. Oh. The recruiters required the workers to make bank transfers to Udon NT of 400,000 baht, and to give them another 200,000 - 500,000 baht in cash in a bag. (Document 1 Indictment p. 10) Only some time after the Thai workers arrived in America did Alec learn that they had been charged between US$16,000 and $22,000 apiece.

Even though they had no awareness of the egregious fees being charged and no connection with Udon NT, the recruiters requiring the fees, Alec and Mike were both charged as co-conspirators.

The case also needed its human trafficking/forced labor element. There were two laws involved: Title 18, section 1589, "Forced Labor," any scheme causing the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services, that person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; and Title 18, section 1592, “Unlawful conduct with respect to documents to prevent or restrict a person’s liberty to travel so as to maintain the labor or services of that person.”

To meet the requirements of these laws, the FBI asked questions that welcomed accusations such as that the Sous conspired with Udon NT in taking kickbacks from the workers' fees. Human trafficking and forced labor charges needed actions to match the stock phrases of time-honored draconian human trafficking treatment: phrases like confiscating and holding the workers' passports, imprisoning them behind high walls with locked gates, escorting them to work and to public places under guard, ordering them not to talk with others, forcing them to live in inhumane housing, paying them little or nothing, and threatening to send them home, causing financial devastation for them and their families if they didn’t work as told, if they complained, or if they tried to escape. (Indictment Document 1 p. 7-12)

These came to be the very things the Sous were accused of in the indictment, and in court by the "victims," on June 7 at the first sentencing hearing. These are also, however, precisely the points which eight of the "victims" themselves repeatedly say are not true in the next part of this paper.

Part Three
Workers Themselves Contradict Plea Charges

Let's return to the "discovery" material withheld by the prosecutor mentioned earlier. It was FBI interviews of eight of the victims. And it would cause the unraveling of the case. The FBI had interviewed the workers separately, at different times, in different places, over a 12-month period. Though they agreed on some things, all of the eight victims stated that one or more of the major accusations against the Sous weren’t true. When Alec and Mike Sou had disputed many of these charges in their Sentencing Statements, they were far outnumbered by their accusers. Here, their accusers themselves were stating that the major claims against the Sous in the plea agreement didn’t happen! One of the victims, Kuson Thasak, even said he "likes Alec Sou and Mike Sou." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 8 Kuson Thasak)

Three of those interviewed by the FBI, Udom Promwong, Somphong Janphet and Theeraphong Srithet, were among the nine "victim" witnesses which the prosecutor had presented to voice their complaints at the June 7 hearing.

Note that in most of the charges below, it is not just one person denying that the thing charged happened. Three or four of the victims say it didn’t happen.

The plea agreement stated that "immediately after the workers arrival, Alec Sou took possession of the worker's passports."

But the FBI interview with Udom Promwong, one of the twenty-four victims who filed a complaint, stated, “Promwong recalled working for 3-4 days before the passports were collected in order to obtain social security cards. Promwong got his passport back 3-4 days later.” (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 52)

Wirat Yothachai’s interview states, "Matee collected his passport. The passports were collected to get social security cards. Mike or someone else gave Yothachai his passport back. After getting a social security card, Yothachai had his passport on him the entire time.” (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 35 Wirat Yothachai)

“(Theeraphong) Srithet said he maintained his passport in his possession the entire time. He first thought it might have been collected in the Philippines, but then he thought he had it in a bag by his bed. Srithet believed the entire group had their passports and they were never collected.” (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 30 Theeraphong Srithet)

Udom Singhasena states, "Matee collected all the worker passports. He placed them in a bag. Mike, Alec, or Matee kept the passports for approximately 2-3 days and then returned. The passports were given to an Aloun Farms secretary to obtain social security numbers." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 4 Udom Singhasena)

The plea agreement said that "shortly after the arrival of the 44 workers, Alec Sou, Mike Sou, William Khoo, Matee Chowsanitphon informed the workers that their contracts were just a piece of paper…used to deceive the US government.” But four of the workers clear Alec and Mike Sou.

Udom Singhasena states: "Matee said, "the contract is just a piece of paper." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 5 Udom Singhasena)

Somphong Janphet also states: "Matee replied "the contract is just a piece of paper." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 17 Somphong Janphet)

Udom Promwong states, "Mattee said 'the contract is just a piece of paper.' The group was mad that they were referring to the contract as 'just a piece of paper.'" (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 54)

Rawi Siriluang confirms this: "It was Mattee who said, "it’s just a piece of paper," not Mike." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 45)

The plea agreement said that "Aloun representatives had instructed the worker not to socialize with outsiders, particularly Laotians, and not to leave the compound when they returned from work." But five of the eight explain what really happened.

The front fence at the Wai’anae home from the inside. Note the large gap between the wall and the chain link fence that runs down the side of the house./Click photo for enlargement

Udom Promwong said, “They were told 1) don’t go out at night 2) keep the house clean. Some of the workers went out of the house anyway at night to make phone calls to family at home and purchase beer. A Thai worker named 'Somporn' supervised the group. He was part of the original 44 and was elected by the group to be the leader because he was the oldest." … "There was another gate which had a lock operated by a key. Somporn had control of the key. All 44 used this gate." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 53 Udom Promwong)

Theeraphong Srithet stated, "Upon arrival, the group was given 'house rules' which consisted of the following: No loud noises. Keep the place clean. No alcohol. Srithet was initially afraid to leave the property and didn’t want to get in trouble. However, he was not told he could not leave." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 31 Theeraphong Srithet)

"There were two gates, and they were locked for security. Srithet believed there were dangerous people outside who had to be kept out…. Srithet said he used to go outside the house with his Laotian neighbors during the first couple of months in Hawaii, but then he said he stopped doing that. He was afraid because he didn’t know English and he was new to America. Lee (Mike Sou’s father-in-law who lived at the house) told the group not to go out because they had to work in the morning. Lee told them not to stay up too late at night." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 32 Theeraphong Srithet)

Entrance to the property from the outside

Rawi Siriluang stated, "The group was given house rules to abide by as follows: 1. Don’t go out. 2. Don’t make noise. 3. Don’t drink." Siriluang obeyed the rules because he was afraid to leave the house. He cited the fact that he didn’t know the English language, he has no familiarity with the area and he didn’t know anybody, as reasons to justify his fears. (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 44-45 Rawi Siriluang.)

"Janphet was told 'house rules' upon settling into the Wai’anae house. The rules were as follows: maintain cleanliness, no gambling, no arguing, no alcohol, smoke outside only; no loud noises; don’t return home late; if you leave, ask for a key" (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 17 Somphong Janphet)

"Janphet feared leaving the Wai’anae house because he could not speak English. Laotian neighbors near the Wai’anae house came to visit Janphet and the group. They asked if there were any Laotians in the group. They told the Thai workers that there were drunk Hawaiians in the neighborhood….Janphet was told that Hawaiians would harm them." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 19 Somphong Janphet)

Picture of the entire property. Notice the large house in the back, the smaller house in front of it, and the third house connected by the carport. Also note that the second gate is shown. This gate was controlled by a key which was available to all.


The plea agreement said "Aloun Farm employees escorted them to work each day and when they were taken to public facilities."

Wirat Yothachai supports this. "Drivers transported the 44 Thai workers to work and returned them to the Wai’anae house each day." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 35 Wirat Yothachai)

The distance between the farm and the Wai’anae house was roughly 17 miles. The farm offered the workers free transportation to and from work, and to doctors, etc. This was a benefit to the workers, which the plea agreement uses to suggest that the workers were constantly under guard. Statements above contradict being kept under guard: the workers were free to leave the property. Some left to use the phone, to buy beer, and to visit with neighbors.


The plea agreement said the Sous "housed eleven workers in unapproved housing consisting of mobile storage containers."

Theeraphong Srithet explains this: "After two months, about 20 Thai farm workers went to live in containers on Aloun Farms property due to overcrowding and loud noise in the house. There were about 5-6 persons in each container with a separate 'port-a-potty.' There were three containers for living. Srithet didn’t think the containers were a problem. He wouldn’t have wanted to stay in them, however. It wasn’t good living…. The living conditions in the house were good. Srithet was glad to have a bathroom…. Srithet couldn’t remember the names of those who lived in the containers. They eventually moved back to the house. The benefits to living in the containers on the farm property were: close to work; no travel between jobs; got overtime easier than those living in the house." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 30-31 Theeraphong Srithet)

"Later some of the 44 were sent to live on the farm while the rest stayed in the house. The group was separated because of overcrowding in the house. That was what Mike told the group. The group was asked for volunteers to live on the farm." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 34 Wirat Yothachai)

We may initially think of these accommodations as unacceptable. But many local people love to camp out on the beach and in campgrounds for months at a time.

And many of these men were accustomed to "primitive" living.

Rawi Siriluang "grew up in a house built on wooden stilts with no running water and two rooms. Water had to be obtained from a nearby well." ( FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 40 Rawi Siriluang.)

Theeraphong Srithet’s "house growing up was wooden, built raised on stilts, the kitchen was extended from the main structure with an overhanging awning. The house had two rooms. His parents and sister slept in the bedrooms while the other children slept in an open area. The house lacked running water and piping and water had to be obtained from a nearby well. The bathroom consisted of an outhouse about 10 meters away." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 27 Theeraphong Srithet)

The plea agreement said that "several of the Thai workers received little, or no, net earnings due to deductions."

Although there were many complaints of less pay than expected, none of these eight FBI interviews mentioned "little, or no, net earnings due to deductions." The workers varied greatly on how much they thought they earned.

"Thangokpo estimated he earned about $600 every 15 days or $1200 a month." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 25 Thanad Thangokpo)

"Thasak was paid approximately $1,400.00 a month at the time the other workers left. Thasak did not make what he was promised per his contract, which stated he should make $9.43 an hour." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 7 Kuson Thasak)

"Theerapong Srithet “believes he was paid $1500/month before deductions for taxes and housing." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 30 Theeraphong Srithet)

"Yothachai was unsure how much money he earned per hour when he worked at Aloun Farms. He believes it was less than $9.42/hour. He recalled that every two weeks, he had less than $500 dollars in his paycheck after deductions." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 36 Wirat Yoothachai)

"Janphet was told he would be paid $1500/month instead of $9.40 an hour. He would also work 8 hours per day and 6 days a week. At this rate, he knew his hourly rate would be $7.81/hour. This, he calculated, was much less than the promised $9.42/hour in his contract." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 18 Somphong Janphet)

There were also comments about being informed of the lower pay and the deductions before signing the contract in Thailand.

"(Thanad) Thangokpo recalled reading the contract for the job opportunity and it said $1200 per month. This was less than what Oh had promised of $2000 per month. He read parts of the contract, but not all. He signed the contract in Thailand." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p.22 Thanad Thangokpo)

"Mr. Oh told Janphet once in the US he’d be charged a meal expense of $8 a day and the farm would provide free housing. Mr. Oh said the airline ticket to America would be paid for from the commission fee." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 13 Somphong Janphet)

The contract stated that cost of meals could be deducted at $8.61 a day, and that taxes would also be deducted. ( [pdf]

The plea agreement stated that Alec and Mike Sou "told the Thai workers they would send them home to Thailand if they were disobedient, failed to follow directions, or if they tried to leave, knowing of the workers’ debts in Thailand and the workers' fear of losing their family homes and land."

Wirat Yothachai contradicts this: "After William (employee of Thailand recruiters) came to Hawaii and made the threats about sending them home, Yothachai kept working. Yothachai feared being sent home. Alec and Mike never threatened to send Yothachai home." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 38 Wirat Yothachai)

"Srithet said 10 Thai farmers wanted to return to Thailand, but couldn’t identify them by name. Srithet heard from a friend who called Udon NT (the recruiters in Thailand) that Udon would only return 100,000 baht if they returned to Thailand. He didn’t hear Mike tell anyone they would be sent home if they complained too much." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 31. Theeraphong Srithet)

"Siriluang did not hear Mike tell other Thai workers they’d be sent home if they didn’t obey." "It was something the group talked about during meals. Siriluang knew from his experience in Taiwan, and the Taiwan contract, that a worker could be sent home if they did not obey." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 45-46 Rawi Siriluang)

These FBI interviews are powerful statements by the very people who wrote complaints that the complaints aren’t true. The charges aren’t true. It may be argued here that I have been selective in what I have chosen to print. It has not been my purpose to present again the prosecutor’s case. My purpose was to present the truths the men have inadvertently spoken when they have been separated from each other, when months have passed, and when they are no longer aware of the fine details of the agreed-upon story and on guard to defend it. Care has been taken to give full quotes. None of the above material has been taken out of context.

Part Four
Revised Statements of Guilt

By the time of the second hearing date, July 19, the Sous' lawyers were able to cite statements of the victims themselves saying accusations in the plea agreement were false.

His lawyer also stated that Alec Sou had taken a polygraph test in which he had been asked the principal questions in the case. The results showed he was telling the truth to every question.

As the hearing drew on, both Alec and Mike Sou told the judge that they were not guilty of many of the things in the agreement, and did not want to be punished for the things that were not true. With their lawyers warning them not to back out of the plea agreement for fear the Feds would throw the kitchen sink at them, the judge tried to work with them to get a clear statement of what in the plea agreement they were guilty of. But it became clear that they could not do that on the spot. Judge Mollway said she could not sentence them until she was completely clear on what they were pleading guilty to. So she gave the Sous a week to write up the points they admitted to, and continued the sentencing until September 9.

In the statement acknowledging his guilt, Alec Sou wrote that he had gone to Thailand, met with Thai recruiters, and learned that they assessed substantial monetary recruitment fees from the workers, that he entered into a contract with them; that after the workers arrived in America, he learned the amount of the fees was even higher than what he was told in Thailand, and that they had incurred great personal and family indebtedness; that he depended on others in Thailand to draw up the contracts which included a provision for a period of continued employment exceeding the lawful allowable period for H-2A visas. That he was present when Matee Chowsanitphon told the workers their contracts were just a piece of paper, and did nothing to correct the statement. That, although he learned the contracts were for a period beyond that allowed by law, he continued to employ the workers. And that, while he was aware the H-2A guest worker program required the employer to pay the travel from Thailand, he knew the payment of travel expenses came out of the recruitment fees the workers had paid. (Defendant Alec Sou’s Supplemental Sentencing Statement. Document 88.)

Mike Sou wrote that he participated in a series of transactions that brought the workers who expected to work for three years; that he knew that Aloun Farms had not paid the workers’ transportation to Hawai’i; that he knew the visas were only valid for a few months; and that he was aware workers were repeatedly told they would be sent home, facing severe economic consequences, if they did not perform up to his expectations. (Defendant Mike Sou’s Second Supplementary Sentencing Statement Document 87.)

These are accurate and honest claims of the extent of their guilt. Need it be said that these statements are quite different from the charges in the plea agreement?

It might be noted before moving on that, while the Sous admit to not fulfilling their obligation to pay the workers for their airfare, the H 2-A visa required the employer to pay airfare from the country of origin only after a worker had completed 50 percent of the work contract period, which in this case was one year. ( Technically then, since the workers arrived on September 4, 2004, payment would have been due six months later, on March 4, 2005. This date fell after the workers left the farm.

Finally, it should also be noted that a final requirement of the sentencing agreement was that Mike and Alec Sou would pay restitution of $8,000 to each of as many as 24 victims. The Sous approved the immediate distribution of the restitution allotments to the 24 victims at the conclusion of the July 7 initial sentencing hearing. (Stipulation and Order Regarding Distribution of Restitution Document 78)

Sentencing for the brothers is now scheduled for September 9.

Part Five
Tweaking Our View of the Workers

The central surprise in this whole story is that the court case and all of the details around it which have occupied our attention thus far are of only marginal importance.

The whole case against the Sous is actually just smoke and mirrors, brought about to serve a whole different, parallel stream of reality. The court case has, indeed, resulted in each of the complaining workers getting $8,000 in restitution, which will certainly greatly help the very real current plight of many, but neither getting that money, nor putting the Sou brothers in jail were ever the workers' real goal or intention. Their goal was something else entirely.

To understand this, we need to clarify our understanding of the Thai workers. They have been presented as impoverished, ignorant peasants, unable to speak for themselves in this foreign land. We accept that view because we can’t believe anyone else would take such hard, unwanted jobs as working in the fields planting and picking crops. This view needs some major tweaking, however.

Thailand exports more than 100,000 workers a year to countries with high exchange rates. The rewards of working abroad can be astounding. Recruiters place people in countries across the world. The prize is the US. Our dollar’s exchange rate with the Thai baht is 1 dollar to 32 baht. For every US dollar they earn, they get the equivalent of 32 dollars in purchasing power at home. Aloun paid them $9.40 an hour. There is a cost for currency exchange, but even at a most conservative 1 USD to 25 baht, that's purchasing power equivalent to $235 in Thailand for one hour's work. They were paid over $1,500 for one month's work. In Thailand, this is a purchasing power equivalent to $37,500. Not bad bucks for a month. In one year they could amass the Thailand purchasing equivalent of half a million dollars. For that kind of money, one might be willing to work in the fields. (Some readers will know that an exchange rate is different from actual purchasing power. In Thailand, however, they are sometimes the same. It depends on where one is, Bangkok or the country. The equivalent is sometimes only 1 to 15, sometimes higher than 32.)

Many in the group that came, well over half, had already worked overseas before coming. Among just the eight workers whose interviews were passed on by the FBI, Promwong worked two stints in Brunei, and one in Taiwan. (Document 64-49 p.49); Rawi Siriluang worked two years in Taiwan (Document 64-49 p.41); Theeraphong Srithet worked for five years in Taiwan (Document 64-49 p.28); and Udom Singhasena worked in both Taiwan and Israel (Document 64-49 p.3).

This group were seasoned ex-pats, who had traveled to many countries in the work-abroad program. We picture them as poor ignorant peasants, but their lunch and supper conversations were about experiences in countries we’ve never dreamed of traveling to. Collectively, they understood the system.

They also were far from impoverished. They were charged a phenomenal fee by the recruiter, 700,000 baht. In a country where farmers make 1,200 to 2,000 baht a year, that’s at least 350 times one’s yearly income. Where did they get that kind of money? “Promwong used 200,000 baht from his own cash.” (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76, p.50) Others did similarly. Everyone also had property or family property to borrow against.

The recruitment fee was more than ten times what was legal. Somphong Janphet tells an amazing story. "Janphet and the group of 44 visited the Thai Department of Labor in Bangkok. Janphet was told that if anyone told the truth about the recruitment fee charge (650,000 baht) then the entire group would be in trouble. Janphet knew going into the building that the whole group would lie. The official at the Thai DOL already knew they were lying. The official said, 'I know this isn’t all you paid.' The official also laughed. Janphet assumed this was normal…. Janphet described the charade. The official asked the entire group, 'you all paid 60,000 baht, right?' Then each Thai recruit would stand up individually and say '60' and sit back down. They did this for each recruit. Janphet said he also submitted a form that said he paid 60,000 baht. The official collected the forms. Janphet named three other Thai recruits who would corroborate this: Bunlai Saengma, Theeraphong Srithet and Watchara Meephol." (Document 65-49 p.16 Somphong Janphet)

While this story shows us what the workers had to do in order to get to America, it also shows us that, to a man, every single one of the workers was willing to stand up and lie if the matter was important enough.

But why would anyone pay such an exorbitant recruitment fee? Like others, Udom Promwong “calculated that he could pay off the debt from the commission fee in one year. Any income earned after the first year could be used to take care of his wife and kids. Promwong decided to take the opportunity." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 50)

As well he should have. After taking a year to pay off the recruitment debt, he could make more than a million dollars in Thai purchasing power over the next two years.

Part Six
The Visa Fiasco

The whole focus of the court case about trafficking has completely missed the real problem in the Sou-Thai worker experience, the thing that has caused suffering for both the workers and the Sous for years. This problem was not conspiracy to commit human trafficking, forced labor, or threats, or poor living conditions or any of the other false charges in the indictment and the plea agreement. The real problem all endured was not being able to get the visas renewed, and both making, and living out, the gut-wrenching decisions that were required as a result. The whole episode of bringing in the Thai workers was a heart-breaking disaster for everybody. Everyone involved was a victim.

There is no doubt that, before they left Thailand, some of the workers knew their visas were only good for some months, and that they would have to be renewed.

Theeraphong Srithet: "Oh told him the job was for three years…. The visa could be extended for three months and then 1 year thereafter." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 29 Theeraphong Srithet)

"At Bangkok Airport… Promwong was given his passport. Promwong checked the expiration date of his visa and noticed it said November 30, 2004. He spoke to a member of the recruiter’s staff about the expiration date, and they said they would renew it after November 30, 2004." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 52)

"At the airport, Siriluang was given his passport and contract…. Jimmy told Siriluang that he’d have to renew his visa yearly. This was the first time Jimmy mentioned this." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 44 Rawi Siriluang)

"Approximately 3 days before boarding a plane bound for Honolulu, HI, Matee told the group, 'I know your visa is good for one year, and then you have to extend year after year.' They were also told this by a representative from Udon NT Union." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 23 Thanad Thangokpo)

Expecting that everything would work out, they boarded the plane, came to Hawaii, and lived and worked, generally happy, for some months. Until the second visa expired.

"The H-2A temporary agricultural visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows foreign nationals to enter into the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. The job must be temporary in nature, and the need should be for one year or less. The employer’s need cannot be ongoing or continuous. You may stay for two more years with two one year increments. With the initial one year, and two one-year extensions, you may stay for three years on H-2A visa." (, also FAQ4)

In Thailand, all 44 of the workers went to the American embassy to get their visas. As one FBI interview states, "At the US embassy, they were asked what they were going to the US to do and how long their duration would be. They told the interviewer they were going to work for three years in America. Janphet was informed by the male interviewer that he passed on the spot." (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 13 Somphong Janphet)

It is almost unbelievable that 44 Thai workers could be given a visa which would not be renewed after only a five-month stay, when the embassy staff fully understood that the Thai nationals expected to stay in America for three years.

After the initial visa expired on November 30, 2004, it was only extended till February 2005, with the directive that further renewals would be denied. No reason was given. The calamity the government created by not renewing the visas is inexcusable. The blame for this entire terrible experience lies at their feet.

Both workers and employers were shocked when the visas were not extended beyond February. Alec and Mike Sou were between a rock and a very hard place. If they kept the workers under their employ on the farm, they might all be arrested by the Immigration Service. If they sent the workers home, the workers would not be able to pay off their huge loans taken out for recruitment fees, and they stood to lose everything they and their families had put up for collateral for the loans. The Sous decided to let the workers disperse, and they failed to contact the proper federal agencies about this decision. (Document 1 Indictment p. 14)

Rawi Siriluang tells the story: "At the meeting the next day, Mike (Sou) told the group it was impossible to renew the visas and they must leave the farm. He continued, 'I know you had to pay a lot to come here. I feel for you. If you don’t leave the farm, the police will arrest you. Vacate the house by tomorrow.'" Siriluang didn’t know where to go. Twenty-two workers were scheduled to travel to the Mainland and work for Matee and twenty-two others were told "just go." Siriluang chose to remain in Hawaii. (FBI interview Document 64-49 Exhibit 76 p. 46-7 Rawi Siriluang)

Of the 22 who stayed in the islands, some were transferred to Kaua’i to work, some asked neighbors in Wai’anae to take them in, some went to live at the Buddhist shrine which the Sous had built in Wai’anae, and six were given continuing work at Aloun Farms. ("Aloun Farms Investigated for State and Federal Labor Violations," by Malia Zimmerman, 9/11/2007 Paragraph 29

Life was indeed bleak. With limited English-speaking abilities, no job, no place to live, no money for food, no way to make money to pay back their loan, no valid visa, and living under the threat of arrest and deportation, the men were desperate. And angry.

Part Seven
The Sting

Earlier, it was said that the court case was just smoke and mirrors. We now unveil the other, parallel level of reality – the "real" story. The story that is really important.

This dimension began to fully emerge at the July 19 sentencing hearing. Joanna Thakhamhor came to Phet Sou, Mike’s wife, crying and saying how sorry she was for what she did. She hugged her, and told her that she was the Joanna that everyone was looking for. She said that she never intended for Mike and Alec to go to jail. And she wanted to help.

Joanna Thakhamhor is an American citizen who was born in Thailand. Some months after the workers left the farm, "a complaint was registered with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s California office, in 2006, on behalf of one of the Thai workers who moved there from Hawaii after losing their job with Aloun Farms." The EEOC hired Joanna Thakhamhor to interview the workers here in Hawai’i. ("Aloun Farms Investigated for State and Federal Labor Violations," by Malia Zimmerman, 9/11/2007 Paragraph 29

Among the workers was Samporn Khanja (whom we met earlier as the elected leader of the house in Wai’anae). Joannna and Samporn married in July, 2006. (Zimmerman, 9/11/2007)

The EEOC case stalled before the interviews were all completed. Joanna then helped the men file complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Immigration office. (Zimmerman, 9/11/2007) All of these filings were brilliant moves which would allow the men to stay in the country as witnesses to human trafficking, at least until the trials would come up. Filing the complaints required lying, however, and making monstrous claims that simply were not true.

People who heard the terrible claims believed them. They were outraged and tried to help. Malia Zimmerman published an expose of the human trafficking on her ( This was the first of several articles roundly attacking and condemning the Sou brothers.

Glenn T. Honda, Melissa A. Vincenty and Clare M. Hanusz of Recovery Law Center got involved as lawyers for 22 of the workers in a civil suit to get them damages. They took the case to the FBI in November, 2008 (Jim Dooley, "Aloun Farms owners plead guilty to illegal workers," Honolulu Advertiser.) and were present during some of the FBI interviews quoted above.

Samporn and Joanna are not among the 22 represented by this firm.

Twenty-four of the twenty-nine Thai nationals were subsequently determined to meet the definition of human trafficking victims and were provided "immigration benefits including Continued Presence Parole and Employment Authorization Documents." (Document 72 US Response to Defendant’s Supplementary Sentencing Statement, p 3)

Recently, the Civil Rights Division and Trial Attorney Susan French signed documents supporting the victims' applications of T visas as trafficking victims. (Document 72 US Response to Defendant’s Supplementary Sentencing Statement, p 3). A T visa allows certain victims of human trafficking to remain in the United States if they agree to assist law enforcement in testifying against the perpetrators. Witnesses may apply for three-year temporary visas that lead to permanent resident status. And they may bring their wives and children to live with them. (


One has trouble blaming the Thai workers. They took out huge loans, came here expecting to pay them off and to make a fortune. After a few months, through no fault of their own, their visas unbelievably were terminated by the US government, and they were cut adrift. To go home meant financial disaster for them and their families. They were desperate to stay in the US, to pay their huge recruitment debts, and to try to earn some of the money they were promised. Most had been in work abroad programs before, and some knew that filing claims of abuse could get them visas that would allow them to stay and work.

But, getting back to The Sting. A sting is successful if you can get the others involved to believe in and focus on an unimportant or less important stream of reality while you pull off a heist, or a coup, or whatever. The federal government has been sold a bill of goods. They bought it and have concocted a case with holes big enough for trafficking. They’ve led the news media and the people of Hawaii to firmly believe that Alec and Mike Sou are guilty of unspeakable crimes against disadvantaged and helpless fellow humans. The people of the state are outraged and deeply angered at the Sou brothers. Many will never change their minds. Alec and Mike Sou might go to jail. Causing these problems and getting us to allow these things to command all our attention has been the sting.

Meanwhile, the 24 Thai workers have each received US$8,000 in restitution and have gotten what they set out to get — visas to stay and work, possibly permanently. Not that they don’t deserve it for what they have endured. But the lies by which they have accomplished it have caused such great hurt. We have been stung.

Addendum (Tuesday, August 2, 2011)

This study was completed and sent to the judge and all parties before the hearing at which Judge Susan Mollway laid aside the plea agreement on the grounds that the Sou Brothers were not admitting to enough substance to merit the punishments agreed to. She asked the brothers to agree to a jury trial, which they did. On the next day, the $192,000 was to have been distributed to the workers. In an amazing twist of justice, the judge ordered that the money instead be returned to the Sou brothers. — Kioni Dudley

Copyright © by Dr. Kioni Dudley. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given to the author and a link to this Hawaii Political Info story is included.



Unsubstantiated Abuse Claims Quickest Way to Green Card: Loophole to Quick U.S. Citizenship [Immigration Fraud]

U.S. citizens victimized by foreign national spouses who falsely charge abuse so that they can stay in the U.S. [Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims]

T-Visa Laws and Trafficking "A T-visa gives temporary non-immigrant status to victims of  'severe forms of human trafficking' on the condition that they help law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute crimes related to human trafficking." [WomensLaw]

6 Accused in Human Trafficking Case   FBI: "largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted in the U.S." [Honolulu Star-Advertiser] Sep 3, 2010

Federal grand jury indicts associates of Beverly Hills firm in human-trafficking case [Los Angeles Times] Sep 4, 2010

Defendant Surrenders In Human Trafficking Case [KITV] Sep 3, 2010