Eight alleged operators of an El Monte garment sweatshop that authorities believe forced Thai immigrants to work in slave-like conditions pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that they concealed and harbored more than 70 illegal immigrants.
The defendants, all Thai nationals who officials believe are illegal immigrants, are being held without bail. They will make their next appearance in U.S. District Court in Downtown Los Angeles on Monday to have a trial date set.
Meanwhile, the state Senate joined an investigation into alleged sweatshop operations in the Southern California garment industry, subpoenaing the presidents of six Los Angeles garment manufacturers to testify at a public hearing Friday at El Monte City Hall.
At the request of state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), chairwoman of the Senate’s Industrial Relations Committee, the relatively unusual procedure will be used to garner public testimony from several manufacturers who have also been subpoenaed by the state Department of Industrial Relations and fined for operating without proper licenses.
They are: Janet Grojean of Balmara Inc., Michael Margolis of New Boys and Voltage Inc., Robert Salka of Ms. Tops of California, Chris Wilks of Tomato Inc., and Albert Khodri of Point Zero and Beniko.
Avraham Levy of Caravan Fashion Inc., whose firm is properly registered, has also been subpoenaed by the state Senate and the state Department of Industrial Relations.
After the brief U.S. District Court hearing in Los Angeles Monday, lawyers for the defendants said their clients are bewildered by the array of out-of-court allegations made against them by state and federal authorities. Based on statements by the 72 workers, who were freed during a government raid Aug. 2 and are now serving as material witnesses, authorities believe the defendants held the workers under armed guard for years, refusing to let them go even after they had worked off travel debts of about $5,000 each.
The charges are similar to those filed in hundreds of illegal immigration cases each year in California, said defense attorney William S. Harris.
“Right now, it’s a plain vanilla alien smuggling case, like so many in this county,” said Harris, who represents Rampa (Pa) Suthaprasit, 32. “They’re somewhat bewildered and amused about why this is such a big case.”
However, government prosecutors are considering filing stiff additional charges, including peonage and involuntary servitude.
Defense lawyer Irene P. Ayala, who represents Suporn (Porn) Verayutwilai, 29, conceded that if the allegations of near-slavery conditions at the barbed-wire-gated El Monte factory proved true, “it’s rare and this is not a routine case.”
The eight defendants--who also include alleged ringleader Suni Manasurangkul, 65, whom workers referred to as “Auntie"; Tavee (Boi) Uvawas, 35; Sunton (Torn) Rawungchaisong, 30; Seree Granjapiree, 28; Hong (Daeng) Wangdee, 32, and Thanes (Noi) Panthong, 30--each face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines on the current charges. Also charged in an indictment last week was fugitive Sukit (Sang) Manasurangkul, 40, who authorities believe helped recruit the workers in Thailand.
At next Monday’s session, U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird, the former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, is due to preside. However, attorney Morton H. Boren, who is representing Granjapiree, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick, “I think we have a problem with Judge Baird,” because the original federal investigation of the labor camp, which was terminated after the U.S. attorney’s office declined to seek a search warrant, was conducted during Baird’s tenure in 1992.
In Sacramento, the governing Senate Rules Committee denied Solis’ additional request that executives of Broadway and Mervyn’s, both major California retailers, also be summoned to testify Friday.
Committee chairman Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said it would be unfair to compel executives of the two California retailers who may have purchased garments manufactured at the El Monte sweatshop, but not also demand testimony from officials of retailers based in other states. The Legislature has no authority to subpoena retailers outside California.
Feldman reported from Los Angeles and Ingram from Sacramento.