Posted May 9, 2011 www.kansascity.com
For almost 10 years, Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev managed one of the largest labor racketeering enterprises ever uncovered by U.S. law enforcement.
Paying close attention to detail, the 32-year-old Uzbekistan native brought more than 1,000 foreign laborers to the Kansas City area by fraudulently manipulating a complex work visa program. He and his co-conspirators negotiated contracts with some of Kansas City’s finest hotels and resorts to put those laborers to work.
Watching his pennies, he larded fees for uniforms, housing and transportation onto his workers’ paychecks and had some of them working for less than $1 per hour.
And last October, he pleaded guilty, admitting that it was true.
But by his sentencing hearing Monday morning, that impressive command of detail completely eluded him.
“A lot of things have been said in court today,” Askarkhodjaev said through a translator. “I didn’t know there would be a sentencing and I’m not quite prepared.”
U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith was prepared, however, and sentenced Askarkhodjaev to 12 years in federal prison, with orders that he be deported the instant his sentence is complete.
“I do not believe the truth is in you, Mr. Askarkhodjaev,” Smith said. “Everything you see is filtered through greed and self-interest.”
The sentence was the harshest available to Smith under an agreement with prosecutors. Without the plea bargain, Askarkhodjaev could have been exposed to a 27-year term, which Smith said would have been more appropriate.
Prosecutors charged Askarkhodjaev and 11 others in May 2009 with racketeering, conspiracy, fraud in foreign labor contracting and forced labor trafficking.
Authorities arrested him in New York that month, after he fled Kansas City and was preparing to return to Uzbekistan.
Even as the charged ringleader of a human trafficking enterprise, Askarkhodjaev had resources available to him that some of his co-defendants could only envy. The courts appointed defense lawyers for him from Shook, Hardy and Bacon, one of the top firms in the United States.
Still, by the hearing Monday, Askarkhodjaev said his lawyers had been feckless, even though they had negotiated a plea agreement that guaranteed him a sentence less than half of what he would have faced otherwise.
Smith pleaded with Askarkhodjaev not to reject the advice of his lawyers.
“It would certainly not be in your interests to represent yourself in this hearing,” Smith said. “It would be foolhardy.”
Askarkhodjaev remained adamant about representing himself Monday.
“They have not really helped me so far,” Askarkhodjaev said. “I don’t think I need them now.”
The only issue at Monday’s hearing was whether he had been completely truthful with prosecutors after his guilty plea. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Meiners concluded that he had not.
Askarkhodjaev had contended his marriage to an Independence woman had been real, and not a sham engineered to win him a permanent U.S. residency card.
Danielle Holliger testified that she married him in exchange for $5,000 and never consummated the relationship. She later pleaded guilty to a federal marriage fraud charge.
Askarkhodjaev also contended that he never threatened co-defendant Jakhongir Kakhkharov to extort thousands of dollars from him.
Kakhkharov testified Monday that his family in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, had paid Askarkhodjaev’s family $5,000 after he had threatened them with violence.
“He said I’ve got one day to get his money or he’ll kill me or my family,” Kakhkharov said.
Askarkhodjaev’s questioning of both witnesses was ineffectual, failing to either shake them off their stories or cast doubt on the accuracy of wiretap transcripts that verified their versions of the events.
And then Askarkhodjaev did something that seasoned lawyers usually avoid: He insulted the judge.
“I thought there was a rule of law in the United States,” he said.
Conferring with his translator for a moment, Askarkhodjaev tried, far too late, to backtrack.
“I take responsibility for the actions I took, but some things were inaccurate and wrong,” he said. “I apologize if I said something wrong.”
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