November 15th, 2007 10:30 EST
South Dakota couple guilty of abusing their workers
ABERDEEN, S.D. - A federal jury returned guilty verdicts Thursday against a married couple for mistreating Filipino employees who worked at their Comfort Inn and Suites hotel in Oacoma, S.D. The convictions are the result of an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations in Sioux Falls, S.D.
After hearing almost a week of testimony describing the conditions in which the Filipino workers lived and worked, the jury convicted Robert and Angelita Farrell of Mitchell, S.D., of nine counts each as follows:
- Conspiracy to commit peonage (maximum prison term: five years; $250,000 fine)
- Four counts of peonage (maximum prison term per count: 20 years; $250,000 fine)
- Document servitude (maximum prison term: 20 years; $250,000 fine)
- Visa fraud (maximum prison term:10 years; $250,000 fine)
- Two counts of false statements (maximum prison term per count: five years; $250,000 fine)
Sentencing has been scheduled for Feb. 25.
"The federal laws enforced in this case protect the value of human dignity, and the conditions of servitude that these victims were forced to endure were simply unacceptable in any modern-day society," said Marty Jackley, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota. "The jury's verdict in this case rests upon strong and compelling evidence.â€Â"
The jury heard emotional testimony from four victims and several other former workers at the hotel. The witnesses testified that the Farrells brought them to the United States with employment visas to work under an agreement that promised 40 hours of work a week at pay above the minimum wage. They hoped to earn money to send to their families back in the Philippines.
Once they arrived in South Dakota, however, the Farrells confiscated their visas and passports, made them sign inflated and ever-increasing debt contracts, and held them to work around the clock. Witnesses described working from 8 a.m. to midnight, then being forced to attend meetings at the hotel in which the Farrells threatened them with violence and berated them about their work and their supposed debts. The middle-of-the-night meetings lasted as long as six hours. One worker testified that she went without sleeping for up to five days in a row.
A U.S. Department of Labor investigator testified that he discovered the Filipino workers were working as many as 160 hours a week at the hotel. When not at the hotel, up to nine Filipino workers were housed in a two-bedroom apartment the Farrells rented about a half-mile from the hotel.
The Farrells paid the workers virtually nothing. To make the payroll records look legitimate, the Farrells handed workers paychecks for them to endorse, only to immediately take them back for deposit back into the hotel's bank account.
Several of the workers escaped from the Farrells in July 2006, whereupon they called Lyman County State's Attorney Ann Arnoldy, who put them in contact with Chamberlain Chief of Police Joseph C. Hutmacher.
The investigation was led by ICE Special Agent Craig Scherer of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Office of Investigations. Assisting ICE in this investigation were the following agencies: the U.S. Department of Labor, the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the Chamberlain Police Department, the Lyman County State's Attorney's Office, and the ICE AttachÃ© at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines.
U.S. Attorney Jackley praised the tireless efforts of Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Koliner and Michael J. Frank of the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, for prosecuting the case.
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