Is it a case of employing and harboring undocumented Indian nationals or a cultural misunderstanding?
That is a major question in the federal case against Amrutlal Patel and his wife, Dakshaben Patel, both charged in U.S. District Court with knowingly and willfully harboring undocumented Indian nationals employed in their Subway restaurants.
A defense attorney says his client and her husband have been miscast, and that prosecutors "sensationalized" an affidavit further clouding the issues. Kyle Edelen, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, and other law enforcement officials have said they could not comment on the pending case.
The affidavit, filed last month, says a worker was beaten and locked up in a secret room. But Mark Wohlander, who represents Dakshaben Patel, told the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV that the worker was not mistreated and there is no secret room.
"I don't think they were doing any more than providing (the workers) an opportunity to survive while they were in this country," he said.
The case has generated news and created buzz in the community, providing Wohlander with yet another hurdle to clear.
Wohlander said his challenge in defending this case is in trying to clear up misconceptions about the Patels' actions toward employees. He said the case is expected to be presented to a grand jury, and he was expecting an indictment this week.
Amrutlal Patel and his wife, Dakshaben Patel, both 46, were arrested Nov. 19 after multiple law-enforcement agencies searched their brick home on Ellerslie Park Boulevard, off Richmond Road.
Federal prosecutors say the Patels required undocumented Indian nationals to work 10- and 12-hour days up to seven days a week at four Lexington Subways, but paid them less than what they should have earned.
The Patels, who have been in the United States since 2006 and are from India, operate four Subway franchises — at 1202 Versailles Road, 630 East Main Street, 360 Southland Drive, and inside a Wal-Mart at 500 West New Circle Road.
Video provide by WKYT
Federal labor officials began investigating the Patels after receiving complaints that workers weren't receiving adequate wages, according to an affidavit signed by David A. Ramalho, a Homeland Security Investigations agent.
An unidentified witness who worked as a manager for the Patels in their Subway restaurants said a worker, identified in court documents as Danny, told the manager he had been locked in a secret room each night and let out in the morning to work.
However, when Danny spoke to law enforcement officers, according to the federal affidavit, he denied the allegations that he was being mistreated.
Danny allegedly told the manager that he owed $97,000 for being brought from India, and another worker said he owed $100,000, according to the affidavit from Ramalho. Danny told police that he illegally entered the United States through Canada and was arrested by immigration officials at the border, the affidavit said. Danny said he paid a bond to get out of custody, skipped a court appearance and went to another state. He then came to Lexington to work for the Patels, whom he knew through friends in India.
Danny said that Amrutlal Patel allowed him to live at the Ellerslie Park Boulevard home, gave him a job at Subway and provided him food and transportation. He said he was required to do housework, according to the affidavit.
Danny told investigators he was given small amounts of cash by Amrutlal Patel, but Patel sent $1,200 of his monthly earnings to Danny's wife in India. Other immigrants who said they were in the United States illegally and worked for the Patels said they had lived at the Ellerslie Park Boulevard home at various times. A man identified in the affidavit as Rohit said the Patels gave him food, transportation and lodging and fixed pay of $1,800 per month for working 10 hours a day, seven days a week. He said he was paid in cash.
According to the affidavit, a worker named Rakesh Patel said he and his wife, Sushilaben Patel, told investigators they worked at a Subway restaurant and were both paid a shared amount between $2,000 and $2,500 monthly. Rakesh Patel said Amrutlal Patel paid their rent of $600 per month on a Lexington apartment on Regency Road. He said his earnings were sent to relatives in India.
The affidavit said there was no television or furniture inside the apartment, only sleeping bags on the floor.
In interviews with law enforcement agents, workers did not allege that they been locked up or physically abused as the cooperating witness alleged Danny had.
A difference of opinion
Wohlander said that once workers have been brought to the country with no resources, they need help, and the Patels filled that gap by providing food and lodging.
"We've got to do something with the folks who are here," he said. "It's a complicated issue. There are a lot of strong opinions on one side or the other."
The Patels were not charged with human trafficking, an offense in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others. But their case sent up red flags with Gretchen Hunt, an attorney who advocates for human trafficking victims. That's because, Hunt said, the allegations touched on several forms of exploitative practices linked to labor trafficking.
"If the allegations are true, it certainly raises concerns that these individuals have been victimized and need services, no matter what the charges ultimately are," Hunt said.
But, said Wohlander, "To equate this case to a human trafficking case is a little bit more than what we have here."
The people who brought the workers to the United States illegally could have engaged in human trafficking, Wohlander said, but he said his clients are not responsible.
Wohlander allowed the Herald-Leader and WKYT to walk through the couple's home to show reporters that a secret room did not exist.
A tour of the 3,051-square-foot, finely decorated home on Ellerslie Park Boulevard did not reveal a hidden room or secret room in the basement that could be accessed by inserting a key, as had been alleged by a cooperating witness in the affidavit that outlined the federal charges against the Patels.
There was no sign of a black wall that led to a secret room, as had been alleged. The basement included rooms containing items typical of most household storage rooms, but there was no sign that a person had lived in them.
Workers lived with the Patels in a second-floor bedroom, but no one was kept under duress, said Wohlander. On the second floor of the home, a bedroom had two mattresses on the floor, an arrangement frequently seen in India.
'Following their faith'
Earlier this month, the Patels were released from the Fayette County Detention Center, and they essentially remain under home incarceration during their release.
The couple will be allowed to operate their businesses, but there are several restrictions on their freedom. They must get federal permission before making any financial transactions of more than $5,000, and they are not allowed to contact any witnesses in the case.
Since their release, Wohlander said, the Patels have been trying to regain custody of their two children — a 14-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl — who were placed in a foster home in Louisville.
Wohlander said the situation with their children was particularly sad because it meant their daughter had to lose time in an accelerated learning program. The children moved back to Fayette County on Friday and now live with the Patels' niece.
The Patels now have unlimited visitation with their children in their home as long as it is supervised.
Ultimately, Wohlander said, the Patels were merely trying to help the people working for them who were in the United States without resources. He said they were required by their faith to help anybody who needs food and shelter, and provided them with employment opportunities.
"They have been following their faith," he said.
Online and on WKYT: Freedom Taken? is a special report by the Herald-Leader and WKYT, and is available on Kentucky.com and WKYT.com. See additional reports on WKYT at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thursday.
Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears