POSTED: 4:12 a.m. HST, Jun 16, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 9:38 a.m. HST, Jun 16, 2011
A Hawaii farm supervisor has pleaded guilty to confiscating passports from Thai laborers to prevent them from fleeing in one of the nation's largest human trafficking cases.
Sam Wongsesanit, 40, entered his plea to a conspiracy charge in U.S. District Court on Tuesday as part of a deal with prosecutors to dismiss other charges against him.
Wongsesanit is the third defendant in a federal human trafficking case involving Los Angeles-based labor recruiting company Global Horizons to plead guilty in U.S. courts. The company recruited Thai laborers to work on farms in Hawaii and Washington state.
Eight defendants were indicted in January on charges of luring about 600 Thai nationals to the U.S., putting them into debt, confiscating their passports and threatening to deport them, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Through successful prosecution of those who take advantage of immigrant workers, we strive to ensure that the United States continues to be a land of economic opportunity, as it has for generations of workers preceding them," said Florence Nakakuni, U.S. attorney for the District of Hawaii.
Wongsesanit faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution to the victims.
"I took their passports, but I didn't know I was breaking the law, but now I do and I take full responsibility," Wongsesanit told U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin S.C. Chang.
He acknowledged confiscating passports from May 2004 to January 2008.
He was charged with several additional counts of forced labor and document servitude, but those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to a single crime.
Two other defendants, Shane Germann and Bruce Schwartz, pleaded guilty earlier this year. Another associate of the defendants, Podjanee Sinchai, was charged and convicted in Thailand with recruitment fraud and sentenced to four years in prison, according to the Justice Department.
"These defendants pleaded guilty to participating in the largest human trafficking scheme ever seen by the Department of Justice," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. "The department is committed to prosecuting cases of human trafficking, both large and small, in order to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our country."
The president of Global Horizons, Mordechai Orian, is still awaiting trial.