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Judge in El Monte Sweatshop Case May Step Aside : Court: She cites possible conflict in role as U.S. attorney in 1992, when prosecutors did not seek a search warrant.

August 29, 1995|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal judge assigned to the El Monte sweatshop case said Monday she may have to step aside because she was the U.S. attorney in 1992 when federal prosecutors in Los Angeles declined to seek a search warrant to raid the sewing factory, where workers were recently discovered to be toiling in slave-like conditions.

U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird indicated at a trial-setting hearing that she had no firsthand knowledge of the 1992 decision against seeking a warrant on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. But she nonetheless wants to avoid any possible "appearance of conflict" of interest, she said, and is therefore inclined to recuse herself from the case.

Baird directed prosecutors and defense lawyers to file briefs on the issue and return to her court Sept. 5.

Eight alleged operators and guards at the El Monte factory stand charged with illegally harboring and concealing 72 illegal immigrants who were working there when it was raided by a task force led by the state labor commissioner's office this month. Federal prosecutors, who had advised the INS not to participate in the Aug. 2 raid because they did not have a federal search warrant, are also considering filing further charges, including peonage and involuntary servitude.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 7, 1995 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Garment factory--Because of inaccurate information provided by the U.S. attorney's office, The Times reported Aug. 29 that Sumran Ngernok, arrested in a series of raids on Los Angeles-area garment sweatshops, was co-owner of a business called MICRO 100 on North Virgil Avenue. Ngernok, according to corporate records, is not affiliated with MICRO 100. A corporate officer of MICRO 100, a firm that distributes carbide tools, said the apparel factory rented space in a building he co-owned.

After the raid, federal immigration authorities acknowledged that they had investigated the factory three years ago but said that at the time, the U.S. attorney's office had declined their request to seek a search warrant, citing a lack of probable cause.

In Monday's court session, Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael J. Gennaco said that a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's complaints unit had declined to edit and file the warrant request in 1992, instead directing the INS "to try and develop more information."

The INS, which had received an anonymous tip that 45 people were being "detained, controlled and held against their will," closed its investigation.

The federal court code calls for judges to disqualify themselves in proceedings in which their "impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

Gennaco told Baird that because the U.S. attorney's office had not investigated the El Monte case during her tenure, there might be no conflict.

Defense attorney Cornell J. Price, representing alleged factory guard Hong Wangdee, argued against disqualification, telling the judge it is unnecessary because she "didn't supervise or get involved" in the El Monte case in 1992.

Afterward, several other lawyers involved in the case said that Baird would probably step aside anyway.

Baird said that if she continues to preside over a forthcoming trial, she may seek waivers from the defendants--who also include alleged ringleader Suni Manasurangkul, 65, whom workers referred to as "Auntie"; Tavee (Boi) Uvawas, 35; Suporn (Porn) Verayutwilai, 29; Rampa (Pa) Suthprasit, 30; Seree Granjapiree, 28; Sunton (Torn) Rawungchaisong, 30, and Thanes (Noi) Panthong, 30--to avoid an appeal if they are convicted.

Meanwhile Monday, a federal magistrate judge ruled that two suspects arrested last week in raids on three additional Los Angeles area garment sweatshops could go free pending trial if they post bond.

Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick set bail for Kiriya Hirunpolkul, 41, co-operator of an Eastside apparel factory, at $20,000, and Sumran Ngernok, 34, co-owner of MICRO 100 at 865 N. Virgil Ave., at $25,000.

Bond was set Friday for three other defendants in the case, Ngernok's husband, Apal Pinwattana, 33, and Bouaphanh and Vanhvilay Thammango, owners of Virgil Apparel at 3109 1/2 Beverly Blvd. Still detained without bond is Tawach Tasanametin, from the Eastside factory, Good Line, at 1643 N. Indiana Ave.

Authorities charge that the defendants harbored and employed illegal immigrants, some toiling to pay off travel debts to professional Thai smugglers. But they acknowledge that the workers, who were sewing garments destined for retailers including Disney, J.C. Penney and Bloomingdale's, were not held against their will as in the El Monte case.

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