- Texas Deputy Killed in Collision with Intoxicated Driver
- ODMP: South Carolina Officer Dies of Smoke Inhalation from Earlier Fire
- FBI Hostage Rescue Team Agents Killed in Training Exercise
- Phoenix Police Officer Dies in Fatal Hit-and-Run
- Metro-Washington Airport Officer Shot and Killed by Wife
- New York Student Killed During Shooting between Intruder and Police
- College Student, Intruder Killed in New York Break-In
Associated Press Writer
(AP) KANSAS CITY, Mo. - From a nondescript brick building a few blocks from the bright lights of Westport, Kansas City's oldest entertainment district, Giant Labor Solutions lured hundreds of foreigners to the city with promises of good jobs and a chance to live the American dream.
But from 2001 until this spring, Giant Labor and two other metro-area companies turned the workers into slaves, fanning them out to housekeeping jobs in hotels and other businesses in 14 states while forcing them to live, sometimes eight at a time, in small apartments for which they were charged exorbitant rent, federal authorities allege. Most of the workers were in the country illegally and were threatened with deportation.
In a 45-count indictment handed down in May, the U.S. attorney's office accuses eight Uzbekistan nationals and four others in the largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted in the city. Authorities say it is the first time a human trafficking ring has been charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the federal statute most often associated with mafia cases.
It's also the first time the charge of fraud in foreign labor contracting has been used since it was added last year to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which in 2000 became the first comprehensive federal law for prosecution of traffickers.
G. Robert Blakey, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who helped write the RICO statute in 1970, said the law allows prosecutors to try criminal operations as a whole, rather than individually. RICO requires prosecutors to present evidence against everyone involved in a racketeering ring, instead of being limited to evidence against only that person, he said.
By presenting a bigger case, the government also has more leverage to pursue bigger forfeitures, such as the $6 million it is seeking in the Giant Labor case.
Blakey said RICO was amended in 1995 to include provisions dealing specifically with modern slavery, but he's not surprised it took 14 years for someone to use the law in a human trafficking case.
Prosecutors allege a pattern of racketeering in the Giant Labor case that included threatening victims with serious harm to themselves or others and threatening to use the legal system against them.
Blakey applauded Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Cordes, the top human trafficking prosecutor in Missouri' Western District, for her efforts in pursuing the RICO charge.
"That's squarely within what Congress had intended," he said. "She's not pushing the envelope. She's right in the center of the box."
The indictment says Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev, 30, owned and operated Giant Labor, a labor-leasing company, and controlled a dozen other businesses that filed fraudulent applications for foreign workers. Askarkhodjaev and others used false IDs to create the companies and open dozens of bank accounts for them, prosecutors said.
The workers, who were mainly from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Philippines, paid thousands of dollars _ often taking out loans in their home countries _ for Giant Labor to bring them to the U.S. and get them temporary visas, authorities said. But once they arrived, the workers were stuck in small, sparsely furnished apartments, had no access to their mail and were charged so many fees that they were sometimes told on payday they owed the company money.
Prosecutors said the workers became trapped because they couldn't afford to leave.
Askarkhodjaev's attorney, Willie Epps Jr., said his client denies that his companies were involved in human trafficking.
"The government's assertion of modern-day slavery is inaccurate and offensive," Epps told The Associated Press in a statement. "Abror Askarkhodjaev has pleaded not guilty to the charges and intends to proceed to trial."
The maximum sentence for racketeering is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; many of the other charges in the indictment carry similar penalties.
The 13 other defendants held positions with Giant Labor or the other companies, several of which had addresses at UPS stores in Missouri and Kansas. At least two businesses were operated out of apartments, the indictment said.
Giant Labor, Crystal Management Inc. and Five Star Cleaning applied for more than 1,000 fraudulent work visas without being required to identify who would be using them, prosecutors said.
Once the visas were approved and the workers arrived in Kansas City, Giant Labor used them to fill labor contracts in Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, California, Florida and eight other states.
Eight of the suspects have been arrested, while the others are believed to have fled the country. No trial date has been set.
Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Whitworth said the government began focusing on human trafficking during the Bush administration with passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Under President Barack Obama, who in June expanded the U.S. watchlist of countries suspected of not doing enough to combat human trafficking, efforts to fight trafficking are being ratcheted up even more.
"(Attorney General) Eric Holder is encouraging U.S. attorneys offices to pursue these cases and has shown a great deal of interest in more and more of this type of prosecution," Whitworth said. "I think we're making an impact, and the Department of Justice is encouraging us to do that."