HONOLULU - A federal judge dismissed human trafficking charges Friday against executives and business associates of a labor recruiting company accused of exploiting hundreds of farmworkers from Thailand by putting them into debt, confiscating their passports and threatening to deport them.
The move came after prosecutors requested dismissal of the case against Chief Executive Officer Mordechai Orian and Director of International Relations Pranee Tubchumpol of Global Horizons Manpower Inc. and business associates.
Eight defendants were originally indicted and three later pleaded guilty.
Authorities accused the Los Angeles-based company of manipulating 600 Thai workers it placed in farms across the United States - including Maui Land & Pineapple in 2004. It was the U.S. government's largest-ever human trafficking case.
Orian's trial had been set to take place in Honolulu next month.
The case was in jeopardy after federal prosecutors abruptly dropped similar accusations against owners of Hawaii's Aloun Farms last year. That case prompted an investigation that found that the federal government wouldn't be able to prove the charges in the Global Horizons case, according to the dismissal order.
"Based on this further investigation, the government has determined that dismissal of this matter is in the interest of justice, because the government is unable to prove the elements of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt," the order said.
Michael Green, Global Horizons' attorney in Honolulu, called the dismissal a "moral victory" but said it doesn't take away all the time, money and emotional toll of fighting the charges.
"To dismiss a case with no intention of bringing it back as a new indictment is very unusual," Green said. "You never see the government just walk away from a case that they spent millions of dollars on."
After accusations were dropped against Aloun Farms owners Alec and Michael Sou, the fate of the Global Horizons case became unclear. The companies were accused of using the same tactics to keep foreign workers in their service.
The case against the Sou brothers fell apart when lead Prosecutor Susan French conceded she inaccurately stated to a grand jury that workers couldn't be charged recruiting fees when they traveled to Hawaii in 2004. The law was changed in late 2008 to prohibit recruiting fees.
French stepped down from the prosecution team shortly afterward because of unspecified health problems.
The same team that conceded the case against the Sou brothers after only three days of testimony was expected to handle Orian's trial.
Melissa Vincenty, the immigration attorney representing more than 50 of the farmworkers, said her clients will be disappointed that they won't be able to testify in court. She said the dismissal doesn't affect their immigration status, as many of them have applied for trafficking victim status.
"Just because the criminal case doesn't move forward it doesn't mean their cases had no merit," she said. "We still believe in our clients."
Nanda Chitre, spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said Friday that the dismissal "applies to the criminal prosecution only and does not apply to any ongoing civil litigation being conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission."
Maui Pineapple Co. and five other prominent Hawaii farms were sued by the EEOC in U.S. District Court in April 2011. The lawsuit alleges violations of the civil rights of immigrant farmworkers from Thailand. Global Horizons Inc. is also a defendant in that lawsuit.
The civil suit relates to the same events as the federal criminal indictment, but the farms were not indicted in the criminal case. The EEOC is seeking back pay and up to $300,000 in damages for each of the workers.
The Maui News reported in September 2010 that several dozen Thai workers were assigned by Global Horizons to Maui Pineapple Co. in 2004 for the summer harvest. Maui Pineapple Co. no longer grows pineapple.
Attempts to reach ML&P officials on Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.