Back-Story on Baptist Missionaries in Haiti Gets Murkier

Jodi Jacobson

The case of the Baptist missionaries gets murkier as Haiti goes into a 3-day period of mourning and one of their lawyers is questioned for a possible role in trafficking in children.

Haitian Judge Bernard Sainvil told Reuters Thursday he had signed a request for the release of 10 Baptist missionaries from the U.S., charged with attempting to take 33 children out of the earthquake-ravaged country.

Sainvil said he sent the signed request to the prosecutor’s office.
He told Reuters earlier that once the prosecutor had given an opinion, he could issue a formal release order for the 10 missionaries, who have been in custody since they were stopped at Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic 17 days after the deadly earthquake.

The prosecutor can comment on the decision, but can’t overrule it under Haitian law.

But whether they will all be released back to the United States and under what conditions is not completely clear.  The New York Times reports that:

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The 10 Americans have been imprisoned since Jan. 29 in the back of the same police station used by President René Préval
as the seat of Haiti’s government since the earthquake. They had been
told by their lawyers that at least some of them would be on their way
home on Thursday. But the judge overseeing their case, Bernard
Saint-Vil, recommended to the prosecutor that they be tentatively
released from custody and permitted to leave the country as long as a
representative stayed behind until the case was completed.

But a State Department spokeperson told RH RealityCheck this afternoon by phone that what happens next will be up to the prosecutor, and that no action is likely to take place for the next three days in any case as Haiti is entering a period of official mourning for the hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. An additional briefing by the US Ambassador to Haiti is expected later this afternoon.

Whether the Baptist group will be charged if they are released back to the United States would be up to the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, the New York Times also reports that one of the lawyers for the Baptist group may be sought in El Salvador for trafficking in women and girls.

The police in El Salvador have begun an investigation into whether a man
suspected of leading a trafficking ring involving Central American and
Caribbean women and girls is also a legal adviser to many of the
Americans charged with trying to take 33 children out of Haiti without permission.

The adviser, Jorge Puello, said in a telephone interview on Thursday
that he had not engaged in any illegal activity in El Salvador and that
he had never been in the country.

The head of
the Salvadoran border police, Commissioner Jorge Callejas, said in a
telephone interview that he was investigating accusations that a man
with a Dominican passport that identified him as Jorge Anibal Torres
Puello led a human trafficking ring that recruited Dominican women and
under-age Nicaraguan girls by offering them jobs and then putting them
to work as prostitutes in El Salvador.

But Puello called it a case of mistaken
identity. “I don’t have anything to do with El Salvador,” he said,
suggesting that his name was as common in Latin America as John Smith
is in the United States.

Mr.
Puello has been acting as a spokesman and legal adviser for most of the
detainees in the Dominican Republic. The family of one of the detained
Americans obtained independent counsel as of Feb 7.

Mr. Puello said he did not
even have a passport. But shown photographs of the wanted trafficker, both Callejas and Judge Saint-Vil said Puello matched the description.

According to the Times, an Interpol arrest warrant has been issued
for someone named Jorge Anibal Torres Puello, according to the police
and public documents.  The judge said he would request assistance from the Department of Homeland Security
to look into Mr. Puello’s background. A spokesman for the department
said American officials were playing a supporting role in the
investigation surrounding the Americans, providing “investigative
support as requested.”

Puello’s law license is also in question: Records at the College of Lawyers in the Dominican
Republic listed no one with his name.  One lawyer for the families
said that Mr. Puello had told him that he was licensed to practice law
in Florida, but the lawyer said he had checked and found no such
record. Mr. Puello said in the interview that he had never said he was
licensed in Florida.

Mr. Puello said in the interview that he had
been representing the Americans free of charge because he was a
religious man who commiserated with their situation.  But other lawyers for the detainees said that the
families had wired Mr. Puello $12,000 to pay for the Americans’
transportation out of Haiti if they were released, and that they had
been told by Mr. Puello in a conference call late Tuesday that he
needed an additional $36,000. Mr. Puello said that he had not
participated in a conference call.

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft on Capitol Hill: Cafeteria Workers to Receive $1 Million in Back Pay

Michelle D. Anderson

“Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills; they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” said David Weil of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Hundreds of people who work in cafeterias that serve U.S. senators and their legislative staffers on Capitol Hill will reportedly receive $1 million in back pay in connection to a United States Department of Labor wage theft investigation.

According to a Washington Post report, 674 food service workers will receive their owed compensation. The back wages break down to about $1,500 per worker.

Officials from the department’s Wage and Hour Division last week said an investigation had revealed the workers were denied prevailing wages that contractor Restaurant Associates and subcontractor, Personnel Plus, were obligated to pay under federal labor law.

Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency that runs the United States Capitol Complex, had contracted the employers.

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The Labor Department said Restaurant Associates and Personnel Plus violated by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by improperly classifying workers so that they could be paid wages for lower-paying jobs and by requiring employees to work prior to their scheduled starting times.

One cafeteria worker told the Washington Post in January that his hourly wage dropped to $13.80 an hour from $17.45 after his job title changed from “cook” to “food service worker.”

The employer also failed to pay required health and welfare benefits and violated SCA, which applies to every U.S. government contract valued in excess of $2,500, by failing to adhere to the law’s record keeping requirements.

David Weil, the department’s Wage and Hour Division administrator, said in a statement last week that restaurant industry workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. economy.

“Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills; they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” Weil said.

The division is reviewing its findings to determine whether it will keep the Restaurant Associates from securing any more contracts with the federal government.

Labor Department spokesperson Joanna Hawkins told Rewire that the case is still open. She said SCA requires contractors guilty of this violation to be debarred unless the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division recommends otherwise “because of unusual circumstances.”

Restaurant Associates spokesman Sam Souccar told Rewire in an emailed statement that the misclassifications were largely attributable to “administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities, which in some cases crossed multiple job categories.”

Souccar said the company has since corrected the problem and was “100 percent committed to ensuring classifications [were] accurate going forward.” He also said Restaurants Associates valued its contract with the Architect of the Capitol and implied that the company wanted to continue working with the federal government.

Robert Guiney, president of Personnel Plus and Just Temps Staffing, disagreed with the Labor Department’s assessment. He denied any wrongdoing.

“Restaurant Associates admitted responsibility for the whole thing and they pay our employees,” Guiney said in a phone interview with Rewire. He declined to comment further.

Guiney said the Labor Department had given his company, Personnel Plus, a “clean bill of health,” according to a Courthouse News Service report.

Hawkins said Restaurant Associates is the prime contractor on the government contract in question. She said it was the company’s responsibility to formally advise subcontractor Personnel Plus of the SCA requirements.

“In this case, Restaurant Associates failed to do so. Restaurant Associates took responsibility for that and agreed to pay the back wages owed to the employees of Personnel Plus. Nonetheless, Personnel Plus also failed to pay all of its workers for all hours worked which resulted in additional back wages,” Hawkins said.

Paco Fabián, a spokes for Good Jobs Nation, an advocacy project of the Change to Win labor coalition that focuses organizing federal contract workers who work for low wages, told Rewire via phone interview that policy changes will help prevent wage theft violations.

He cited three labor-related executive actions signed by President Barack Obama, including one that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

“It sort of kicked off an increase in minimum wage across the country because he led by example,” said Fabián, who noted that the cafeteria workers remain without union representation.

Fabián said policy changes should aim to create a system in which the most ethical bidder, rather than the lowest bidder, will be awarded a government contractor. Lowest bidders are more likely to engage in wage theft violations, Fabián said. “We want to create a system that gives preferences to companies that provide living wages and benefits and to freedom to form unions without retaliation,” he said.

Joseph Geevarghese, director of Good Jobs Nation, said in an emailed statement the recent $1 million award was the result of activism. In recent years, U.S contract workers and allies have gone on strike and filed legal multiple complaints.

“This shows that when workers act, workers can win,” Geevarghese said.

Last year, for example, more than two dozen Senate aides brought their own lunches to work and boycotted meals being served on Capitol Hill during a union drive among the cafeteria employees. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was among those to join the boycott, according to Al Jazeera.

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Harry Reid (D-NV) are among lawmakers who have shown support for reform on behalf of the food workers. Reid has said the federal government should stop working with the Restaurant Associates, according to an Associated Press report.

Geevarghese urged Obama to sign the Model Employer Executive Order that was recently added to the Democratic Party platform.

News Politics

Progressives Notch Wins, Anti-Choice Republican Gets the Boot in State Primaries

Ally Boguhn

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), whip of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus, was defeated after losing the support of business groups and the agricultural lobby in Kansas.

State primary elections brought major victories for progressive candidates on Tuesday and saw incumbent Rep. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS)—an anti-choice member of the extreme House Freedom Caucus—lose his seat to his primary challenger.

In Washington state, progressive candidate state Sen. Pramila Jayapal advanced to the general election in November in her bid to replace retiring Rep. Jim McDermott (D) in Washington’s 7th Congressional District.

The candidate has “been a champion for access to healthcare, and commonsense gun safety and civic engagement as well as for women, workers, students, communities of color, low-income communities, immigrants and refugees,” according to Jayapal’s website. That work earned her the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who solicited donations for her campaign telling supporters in an email that Jayapal is “not afraid to take on powerful special interests” and is “running her campaign with our political revolution.”

Sanders lauded Jayapal’s win Wednesday in a statement circulated by press release. “Pramila just proved that candidates can run a strong progressive campaign funded by small-dollar donors and win big,” Sanders said. “The people-powered movement that propelled our campaign to victory in states around the country is already changing how campaigns are run up and down the ticket.”

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Liberal and progressive groups praised Jayapal as news of her primary win broke.

“Pramila Jayapal winning this primary is huge for progressives,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement on the night’s election results. “She is a bold progressive game changer whose strong performance shows that voters are hungry for bold progressive ideas like expanding Social Security benefits, debt-free college, and a $15 minimum wage. With Pramila’s record as an accomplished activist and state senator, we are confident Pramila will be one of the strongest partners progressives have ever had in Congress and one of the strongest representatives Washington has ever had.”

Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, called Jayapal a “a progressive leader and a tireless advocate for women and families” in a Wednesday statement. “She understands the importance of increasing economic opportunities and protecting women’s access to health care. EMILY’s List is proud to continue supporting Pramila in her historic bid to be the first Indian American woman elected to Congress.”

Elsewhere in the state, fellow progressive candidate Darcy Burner finished among the top two candidates in her race for the state’s 5th District House seat. The state’s primary system allows the top two candidates to advance to the November election regardless of party affiliation.

In Kansas, the incumbent Huelskamp lost his primary race to challenger Roger Marshall. The three-term congressman has represented the state’s 1st Congressional District since 2011, where he has carved out a place for himself among the extremist House Freedom Caucus (HFC), which has pushed ultra-conservative and anti-choice policies in Congress. Huelskamp was one of a dozen politicians backed by the HFC’s unofficial PAC, the House Freedom Fund, as Rewire reported.  

Huelskamp championed anti-choice efforts prior to being elected into office and was “active in assisting women in crisis pregnancies” during graduate school, according to his website. He continued that legacy in Congress, where he serves as the Pro-Life Caucus whip.  

Huelskamp in 2012 notoriously delivered a speech on the House floor comparing abortion care to slavery and accusing both Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration of being racist. He again used race to push his anti-choice position in 2015, tweeting that those who accepted awards from Planned Parenthood supported a “racist” agenda.

According to the New York Times, Huelskamp’s challenger Roger Marshall “won with the support of business groups and the agriculture lobby, which had turned its back on Mr. Huelskamp after Speaker John A. Boehner had him removed from the Agriculture Committee in 2012, a crucial position for a legislator from a farm state.”

During the primary race, Huelskamp released an ad questioning whether Marshall, an OB-GYN, was truly pro-life and claimed he “supports pro-abortion groups that back Planned Parenthood and Hillary Clinton.” The accusation reportedly refers to a donation from the American Congress of OB-GYNs PAC to Marshall, and a previous donation he made to the group.

Marshall’s campaign website prominently displays the Republican candidate’s “pro-life” position and touts a recommendation of his from the anti-choice American Association of Pro-Life Physicians and Gynecologists. 

Brent Robertson, Marshall’s campaign spokesperson, however, defended the candidate’s anti-choice position in a statement to the Topeka-Capitol Journal in January.

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