Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Admitted Human Traffickers Got Federal Aid

Picture from KGMB News

From KITV News:

Nonprofit Aloun Foundation Got $2 Million Fed Loan

Keoki Kerr

The owners Kapolei's Aloun Farms -- who've already pleaded guilty to human trafficking some of their farm workers -- received a multimillion dollar federal loan to buy an apartment in which to house their farm employees.

Brothers Mike and Alec Sou have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit human trafficking for mistreating workers brought in from Thailand to work on one of Oahu's largest fruit and vegetable operations, Aloun Farms. They await sentencing in September.

Now, KITV4 News has learned a nonprofit corporation set up by the Sou brothers, the Aloun Foundation, received $2.1 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Agriculture Department to buy a four-story Wahiawa apartment complex to house low-income farm workers.

The mortgage for 104 Lakeview Circle shows the loan deal was signed in July 2008, just before the FBI began its federal human trafficking investigation.

Tax returns filed by the nonprofit Aloun Foundation list Alec Sou as president, and his brother Mike and their mother and father as directors. The nonprofit “supports cultural and historic agricultural activities in Hawaii through providing low cost living assistance to employees working in those organizations,” according to its 2008 tax return.

"It's a real straight up deal, and it really is serving a public purpose," said Craig Watase of Mark Development, property manager for the apartment house.

All of the rental units house at least one resident who works at Aloun Farms, he said. Residents at the complex confirmed that to a reporter Monday and said most of them were Micronesian, with two families from Hawaii.

Watase said the residents here must meet federal low-income levels to qualify for subsidized rentals, paying 30 percent of their income in rent and the U.S. Department of Agriculture picking up the rest. “It’s a good thing, and it’s on the up and up. It’s federally audited and monitored,” he said.

The Sous pursued the federal loan through their nonprofit instead of their for-profit farm because non-profits have a "better chance" of winning help from the federal government, Watase said.

He said in the nearly two years he has managed the property, only employees from Aloun Farms have been tenants there, but they’ve “tried to reach out to employees of other farms.”

"I think it's interesting and a little troubling how the Sou brothers know how to work the system," said Clare Hanusz, the attorney representing 27 former Aloun Farm workers who are trafficking victims in the federal criminal case and did not live at the Wahiawa apartment complex.

"Why this would fall under the guise of a nonprofit foundation as opposed to their for-profit enterprise is potentially concerning," she said. "I don't know hy Aloun Farms wouldn't just pay a living wage so that its workers wouldn't have to use subsidized, basically federal government subsidized housing."

Sources told KITV4 News the state attorney general's office is investigating to determine whether the Sous are using the apartment owned by their nonprofit organization as an extension of their for-profit farm.

covered parts of this story out of Hawaii, that actually operated all over the US, in the past. The sentencing in this trial started in June, however is set to continue in September after an agreement could not be reached. I find this particular finding interesting because I think it highlights that although traffickers make efforts to prevent their abusive practices from being discovered and punished, they can also operate in general quite publicly. Traffickers can be active community members, producing goods for major grocery chains, or, in this case, federal grantees. We can never assume that just because an agricultural employer is providing goods or services to major companies or works with grant monitors of the federal government, they are not capable of being traffickers.

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