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Seeks back wages

Ex-Llenroc employee files suit

Illegal immigrant cites ‘involuntary servitude’

Monday, November 11, 2013
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Seeks back wages


The Llenroc mansion in Rexford.
The Llenroc mansion in Rexford.

— The illegal immigrant harbored in the opulent Llenroc mansion in Rexford has filed suit against the woman convicted of harboring her, seeking back wages and damages.

Valsamma Mathai is seeking damages she alleges were inflicted by her employer, Annie George, for human trafficking, violations of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, as well as violations of federal and state wage and hour laws.

In the suit, brought with the help of a group called the Worker Justice Center of New York, Mathai contends she was “subjected to involuntary servitude, forced labor and was grossly underpaid” by George.

The suit follows a federal criminal trial in March in which George was convicted of harboring Mathai at the family’s Llenroc mansion, but acquitted of more serious accusations of doing so for financial gain.

George was sentenced in July to eight months of home confinement. She was also sentenced to five years’ probation.

Mathai makes allegations in her suit similar to those made by federal prosecutors at the George trial, that Mathai was responsible for cooking, cleaning, childcare and other duties, for nearly six years, all without a day off.

For her work, she never had access to any money she earned, the suit reads.

She also alleges that she was told repeatedly that she could not leave the Rexford estate.

“Many times during her employment … [Mathai] would cry and pray for a way out of her situation,” the suit reads. “With no money and no way to leave [George’s] home, she felt completely helpless.”

Mathai’s work at the home finally ended in May 2011 when her son in India contacted the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Federal agents then went to the home and pulled her out.

A formal response to the suit from George is due later this week, with an initial conference scheduled for next month. The suit was filed in August in U.S. District Court in Albany.

A message left with George’s listed attorney, John Harwick of Latham, was not returned Monday.

George is appealing her conviction, with her arguments due early next year.

George’s defense at trial contended that she didn’t know Mathai was an illegal immigrant, and that Mathai was only a guest and was treated like family. Mathai’s suit doesn’t place numbers on the wages lost or damages sought. But it alleges that Mathai agreed to work for the George family beginning in 2005 for $1,000 per month, then worked 18- to 19-hour days without a day off. Similar allegations were included at George’s trial.

For more than five years of work, she only received about $24,000 in pay, prosecutors alleged. Over the 66 months she worked for the family, she should have been paid $66,000, prosecutors said.

Mathai’s immigration status notwithstanding, a Labor Department official calculated in trial testimony that for 17 hours per day over 51⁄2 years, labor laws meant she was owed more than $317,000, calculated at minimum wage.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that George financially gained by underpaying Mathai, but the court jury rejected that argument.

The Worker Justice Center of New York, the group representing Mathai, has roots dating back three decades, focusing on the rights of agricultural and other low-wage workers, according to the group’s website. Its precursor group was founded to provide legal representation to migrant and seasonal farm workers.

Since then, the group claims, it has recovered millions of dollars for victims of wage theft and other forms of employment discrimination.

Contacted Monday, center co-Executive Director Milan Bhatt declined to discuss the Mathai case specifically, including to say whether Mathai remains in the United States.

According to the suit filed in August, Mathai was listed then as living in Albany County and indicated that she was granted a special visa certifying her as a “victim of a severe form of trafficking.” The suit does not indicate when that was granted or whether it has a time limit.

According to the suit, Mathai also fears that if she were to return to India, she could face retaliation for her role in the George case.

If Mathai were to win her suit, it is unclear how much would be available.

Less than two years before Mathai was pulled from the home, the head of the George family, Mathai Kolath George and the family’s eldest son, George M. Kolath, Jr., were killed in a small plane crash.

At the time of the crash, Mathai Kolath George was seemingly a successful hotel group owner. After his death, though, according to defense witnesses at trial, the hotel business fell into ruin and Annie George discovered a web of loans and mortgages that backed what George’s defense called “a mirage.”

George also faces possible loss of the Llenroc mansion. The presiding judge in her criminal case ordered it seized, but that order is on hold pending the outcome of her appeal.

The mansion suffers from maintenance problems, including a leaky roof, according to testimony. With no money to fix the home after the collapse of the family’s hotel business, the home has also fallen far behind on property tax payments. As of last year, Saratoga County was owed more than $250,000, according to tax records.

 
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