By Michael Hill
The Associated Press
ALBANY, New York (AP) — A hotelier’s widow who had been accused of cheating an Indian household servant out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and keeping her a virtual prisoner at a mansion was found guilty Friday, March 8 of knowingly keeping the woman in the country illegally but won’t have to pay her.
Annie George, whose husband died in a plane crash, had said she didn’t know Valsamma Mathai was in the United States illegally. She also said she didn’t mistreat Mathai during the 5 1/2 years she worked in her home near New York state’s capital, Albany.
Mathai had testified that she slept in a closet, worked long days without vacation, days off, or sick time and wasn’t allowed to leave the palatial stone mansion on a cliff overlooking the Mohawk River.
Federal prosecutors had said George owed Mathai $317,000, based on the minimum wage and overtime for the hours she worked. Mathai said she was paid only $26,000, much of which she sent to her family in India.
But because the jury didn’t find George guilty of keeping Mathai for financial gain, the original charge, she won’t be liable for the wages, said George’s lawyer, Mark Sacco.
George, 40, was convicted of harboring an illegal immigrant. She faces a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine at her July 9 sentencing. She remains free on bail.
George did not answer questions as she left the court, but Sacco said she was devastated. She’s now left trying to raise five children and maintain a struggling business.
Sacco noted the jury did not convict her of the more severe charge.
“I think, in many ways, Annie feels vindicated because what a lot of the reports were was that she mistreated this woman and mistreated this woman like a slave,” Sacco said. “None of that was true.”
The case surfaced when one of Mathai’s sons in India, Shiju Mathai, called the National Human Trafficking Resources Center in 2011.
On Thursday, March 7, George said a tape recording of a phone call between a woman and Shiju Mathai, which prosecutors played Wednesday, wasn’t her voice. She didn’t say who she thought the voice belonged to.
On the call, the woman warns Shiju Mathai that there could be dire consequences, even jail time, for his mother if she were to tell authorities about working in the United States.
George testified that she was left in desperate financial straits when her husband died in 2009. She said she knew nothing of his business dealings, including the arrangement to have Valsamma Mathai live with them, because he required her to stick to her duties as his wife and mother of their six children and severely punished her if she tried to make any decisions in the home.
Her late husband, Mathai George, was a native of India who built a hotel and real estate development business in the United States. He was killed along with his 11-year-old son and another man when their private plane crashed after takeoff.
Sacco, in closing arguments, said Annie George deferred to her husband on all decisions.
“The government is prosecuting Annie George because Mathai George isn’t here,” Sacco said.
He suggested Shiju Mathai launched the investigation because he was unhappy that his mother was sending less money home after Mathai George died.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Belliss said Annie George was an intelligent woman with a graduate degree in pharmacy who, even if she didn’t directly know Valsamma Mathai’s immigration status, was smart enough to figure it out.
Prosecutors had no immediate comment after Friday’s verdict.
Valsamma Mathai, who was not in court Friday, came to the United States legally on a visa and stayed with another family after her husband died of cancer, leaving her the sole provider for her two sons and ailing mother. When she left that family, her status was illegal because it violated the terms of the visa, Belliss said.
A business associate testified Wednesday that Mathai George left six hotels, all in foreclosure or bankrupt and in poor condition. Several friends of Annie George said when they visited, it appeared Valsamma Mathai was a member of the family, rather than a servant, and George’s children called her grandmother. (end)