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Cruelty, fear froze victims in web of bondage

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Cruelty, fear froze victims in web of bondage
MARK MORRIS and MIKE McGRAW, The Kansas City Star
PUBLICATION: Kansas City Star, The (MO)

SECTION: FRONT

DATE: May 31, 2009

EDITION: 1

Page: A1
For almost a decade, a shadowy 30-year-old Uzbek — known to his friends as “Abror” — glided under the radar of federal authorities.

Then last week a judge unsealed a grand jury indictment accusing Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev of being the mastermind behind a brutal, far-flung human-trafficking ring that stirred outrage in Kansas City.

Authorities alleged that he helped lure more than 1,000 foreign workers to the heartland to work at hotels, casinos and construction sites in 14 states, sometimes for pennies a day. Court records include allegations of extortion, racketeering, threats to workers and a sham marriage.

From interviews and court documents, The Kansas City Star pieced together a portrait of the alleged ringleader — indicted along with 11 others from the United States, Uzbekistan and Moldova — some of the victims of the scheme and how they may have exploited immigration laws.

The case is remarkable because it shows that the same forced labor conditions found in the Middle East now exist in the U.S., said an international expert on human trafficking.

“Lots of people who are eager for a better life come to work in the United States. They’re vulnerable to those so greedy and sadistic that they’d enslave them,” said Mark P. Lagon, a former U.S. ambassador at large to combat human trafficking.

Prosecutors identified Askarkhodjaev as the leader of the multimillion-dollar enterprise that controlled three companies at the center of the alleged conspiracy: Giant Labor Solutions of Kansas City, Crystal Management of Mission and Five Star Cleaning of Overland Park.

Though no one is certain why the enterprise was set up in Kansas City, authorities suggested the central location would be as attractive to human traffickers as it is to drug runners.

The enterprise, which authorities said reaped at least $6 million, collapsed last week under the weight of a 90-page human-trafficking indictment, supported by at least one cooperating employee within Askarkhodjaev’s companies.

The groundbreaking 45-count indictment — alleging racketeering and a host of other charges — marked the first time the federal government has charged defendants under a new law prohibiting fraud in foreign-labor contracting.

“The alleged conspiracy not only victimized foreign workers but also defrauded U.S. businesses and displaced legal workers in the name of profit,” said James Gibbons, acting special agent in charge at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A federal public defender who represented Askarkhodjaev at a hearing last week in New York could not be reached for comment.

Marriage ‘manipulated’

Askarkhodjaev first shows up in U.S. records around 2000, when the government issued him a Social Security number in Pennsylvania.

Records also show he had an address in Columbus, Ohio, then a series of addresses in the Kansas City area beginning in September 2001, including apartments in Johnson County; Kansas City, Kan.; Blue Springs and Independence.

Yet neighbors in the Kansas City area have no recollection of Askarkhodjaev. One area woman recalled an apartment filled with foreign men who she thought were brothers and who would arrive home late in a dilapidated car.

On June 19, 2004, Askarkhodjaev married a 20-year-old Independence woman. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared for her safety.

But her attorney, John A. Picerno, said Askarkhodjaev “manipulated” her into the marriage, then left her, although he provided some financial support.

Last week’s indictment alleges that he “knowingly and unlawfully” entered into the marriage to evade immigration laws.

“My client is a sweet girl who’s never been in trouble, but who fell for someone older and wiser and more financially secure,” Picerno said.

He said she met Askarkhodjaev at a club. Picerno said he “wined and dined her and swept her off her feet,” but ended up “using her for his own purposes.”

Picerno said his client told him that Askarkhodjaev did not lead an especially flashy lifestyle, often living with his wife or others in relatively low-cost apartments. He rarely used cash, preferring a credit card. However, she said Askarkhodjaev drove a Mercedes or BMW M5.

About a year ago, Picerno said, Askarkhodjaev gave his client a set of divorce papers that a federal immigration agent later told her were fake.

Picerno said his client had no knowledge of the labor-leasing firms her husband was running nor what he did for a living. The woman said her first knowledge of last week’s indictment came when a reporter for The Star asked about her husband.

Askarkhodjaev’s relationships with others suggests that his wife may have reason to fear him.

In January 2008, a co-defendant in the human-trafficking case, Jakhongir Kakhkharov, asked a Johnson County judge for an order of protection against Askarkhodjaev.

Kakhkharov alleged that Askarkhodjaev had appeared with another man at his Overland Park apartment at 3 a.m. demanding $7,000 and pushing him around.

The complaint doesn’t say whether Askarkhodjaev got the money, but notes that he left with Kakhkharov’s identification.

The judge ruled that Askarkhodjaev was a credible threat to Kakhkharov’s safety and granted the protection order.

Askarkhodjaev spent the final days before his arrest in Brooklyn, N.Y., where U.S. immigration agents had obtained a court order to track his cell phone. That led to his arrest May 25.

Eight of the 12 defendants are scattered in federal lockups as far away as New York and Florida. Four have fled the U.S. and likely will never make it back for trial.

A fifth nearly got away but was caught fleeing. On May 22, according to court records, federal agents arrested Ilkham Fazilov at Kansas City International Airport carrying a one-way ticket to Uzbekistan.

Agents said all his bank accounts had been drained. His flight was curious, prosecutors noted, because earlier he had applied for asylum, saying he feared what would happen to him if he returned to Uzbekistan.

Fazilov told agents at KCI that he needed to return home because he was afraid his wife and child “were being threatened by the mafia.”

Workers were ‘slaves’

Askarkhodjaev’s employment companies enticed foreign workers to Kansas City, then packed them into vans and shipped them to businesses across the country, according to federal court records.

They toiled long hours, lived in overpriced substandard housing, paid outrageous uniform and transportation fees, and received wages so low that — after the fees were deducted — they sometimes collected paychecks showing that they owed the labor-leasing companies that hired them.

Federal authorities described those employment companies as a “racketeering enterprise” that turned workers into “modern-day slaves.”

Now the workers are waiting to find out if they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. in return for helping the government prove its case.

The pool of potential victims is large, prosecutors said. At a court hearing Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Porter said the enterprise secured more than 1,000 fraudulent work visas.

By week’s end, authorities had sequestered many of the victims at an undisclosed location and had begun interviews to determine who had been subjected to force or coercion — key elements for human trafficking.

Some who knew the workers told disturbing stories of how they became entangled in a web of bondage.

Jose Bayani, executive director of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City, said that despite the arrests of the defendants, some workers were still afraid to come forward and tell their stories. Bayani said his group has assisted about two-dozen Filipinos who were brought to the Kansas City area as part of the alleged conspiracy.

At one time, he said, 12 Filipino workers lived together in one Overland Park apartment.

The men who brought them to the area charged each of them $75 a month for the apartment and also deducted money from their paychecks toward the $2,500 to $3,000 fee each was charged for coming to Kansas City, he said.

Bayani said one of the workers showed him a paycheck, after deductions, of just 57 cents for two weeks of work.

The alleged traffickers wouldn’t allow the workers to seek other employment, and they controlled the workers by confiscating their passports and visas, Bayani said.

Bayani said the association offered to contact authorities, but the workers didn’t want it to because they were afraid of the men who controlled them and of being deported.

He said that many of the workers were college-educated, but were unable to find work at home.

Some have moved to other parts of the country or returned home. One group of five is now working at a Kansas hospital, which is trying to help them with their immigration status, he said.

“Conditions back home are really tough,” Bayani said.

Visa program abuse

In many cases, authorities allege that Askarkhodjaev and his co-conspirators preyed on immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally, or whose visas were about to expire.

He is accused of taking advantage of a Department of Labor visa program to keep them here as legal workers, then abusing them, in part, by paying them far below the prevailing wages required under the program.

Union officials said the H-2B program has long been a “sham” that employers sometimes use to take advantage of foreign workers and avoid hiring more costly U.S. citizens.

“The Kansas City hotel industry is not highly unionized,” said Anne Marie Strassel, a spokeswoman for Hotel Workers Rising, an organizing effort for hospitality workers, “so it is not surprising that you would find this sort thing going on there.”

Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO, added: “This visa program is part of the reason that we have a problem trying to organize people in this industry.”

Kansas City hotel officials, however, said publicity about the case has unfairly left the impression that they are part of the problem.

“Someone asked, ‘How can you guys live with yourselves using slave labor?’ ” said Tom Holden, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City.

“But the fact is we had nothing to do with this and it is unfair to paint our hotels as part of this problem. In fact, one of our hotels found some forged documents and brought it to the attention of investigators early on.”

Holden and federal authorities noted that the businesses were assured that their contract workers were being paid prevailing wages.

In the end, an immigration expert for the AFL-CIO said the indictment showed it was time to tighten up the H-2B program.

“We have been seeing this kind of abuse of H-2B workers for years,” said Ana Avendano, director of immigration policy for the AFL-CIO in Washington.

What is unusual about this case, Avendano added, is that “the federal government has actually stepped in to address the abuses.”

Help sought

Federal authorities ask that anyone with information related to this case or anyone who was a victim of this alleged conspiracy call the Human Trafficking Rescue Project at 816-325-7867.