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COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

So Many Questions, So Few Answers : The indifference shown in the El Monte sweatshop case persists, with no probe of the INS.

August 20, 1995|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at 76327.1675@compuserve.com

In April, 1993, Philip L. Bonner Jr., a Thai-speaking special agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, wrote a letter to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno warning that "critical criminal investigations involving multiple homicides, Thai heroin trade, the smuggling of Asians and their peonage in Los Angeles and other investigative matters have been systematically obstructed by my management."

That same sentence appeared in letters he sent to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. The only response Bonner got was that the letters had been received. Pity that they ignored him, for we now know in the aftermath of the Thai slave scandal in El Monte that the warning about official indifference to peonage in Los Angeles was true.

A year before Bonner wrote his letter, the INS already had the El Monte complex under surveillance, following a tip that Thai nationals were enslaved there. Based on his surveillance in the spring of 1992, INS agent Richard D. Kee wrote an affidavit stating that "the premises are believed to contain persons held in conditions of involuntary servitude." But the INS request for a search warrant was turned down by the U.S. attorney's office. The case was abruptly closed in July, 1992, and the slaves were left to toil in their 18-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week misery.

Just how this miscarriage of justice could occur should be the subject of intense inquiry by officials in charge, beginning with Reno, whose department controls both the INS and the U.S. attorney's office.

But as matters now stand, there is no comprehensive investigation under way of this nasty business. Reno has maintained a stony silence. And INS Commissioner Doris Meissner left on a two-week vacation without ordering an accounting from her subordinates.

Nor has a single member of California's congressional delegation demanded an investigation of this human-rights horror. Perhaps when they return from their summer vacations, at least one elected official might ask the following questions:

Why was agent Kee's affidavit requesting the search warrant never presented to then-U.S. Atty, Lourdes Baird? Baird, now a federal judge, told me last week, "I have no recollection of that sort of thing being brought to my attention."

The current U.S attorney, Nora M. Manella, said that while the Kee affidavit is not on file in her office, they have located an assistant U.S. attorney who conceded to having turned down the search warrant request in 1992. She defends the action by stating that the original affidavit did not contain "probable cause" for a search of the premises.

Is this really the same standard they would use to search premises suspected of drug production, or are slaves a less offensive contraband?

Was it not probable cause that none of the workers in the complex was ever observed leaving the premises during a month-long surveillance by the INS in April, 1992, and that an agent said he expected to find people held as slaves?

That aside, INS agents documented that garments were being manufactured, a violation of 45-year-old federal labor laws banning industrial home work. Why was the U.S. Labor Department never informed? Couldn't the premises have been searched on the strength of those labor violations alone?

If more evidence was required to obtain a federal search warrant, why didn't surveillance continue? Instead, the INS bosses shut the case down in July, 1992. Shut down so completely that when they once again put the complex under surveillance by agent Bonner in May of this year, in response to new information from an escaped slave, they were unaware that the complex had previously been the object of an investigation. It took the INS two months to discover the 1992 affidavit buried in their files. Only when state agents joined the case was it produced and used as an important exhibit by state agents to obtain their search warrant, which led to the release of 72 slaves.

Also ignored was a detailed eight-page memorandum of investigation documenting slavery at the El Monte facility written by Bonner recounting his surveillance in May and June. Why was that memo never shown to Manella? Why was her office not told of the recent slavery surveillance until July 30, more than two months after it began? Why did the U.S. attorney's office, instead of seeking a search warrant, ask the state to delay execution of its warrant?

Many questions indeed. How about some answers? Or are the INS, the U.S. attorney's office and the Justice Department, to which they report, simply above the law?

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