By MARIA SUDEKUM FISHER Associated Press
Published: November 11th, 2011 01:45 PM Last Modified: November 11th, 2011 02:01 PM
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Federal prosecutors in Kansas City have jailed a Taiwanese official on a felony labor violation involving her housekeeper - a charge experts say has rarely, if ever, been applied to a foreign official.
Hsien-Hsien Liu, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City, is accused of vastly underpaying the woman, restricting when she could sleep and making her work 16 to 18 hours a day.
Liu, 64, was arrested and charged Thursday with fraud in foreign labor contracting, which is punishable by up to five years in federal prison. She was held without bond until a hearing Wednesday. Court records do not list an attorney for her.
TECO's main office in Washington did not respond to phone and email messages left Friday seeking comment. The organization's website said the office was closed Friday in observance of Veterans Day.
Prosecutors said Liu's office maintains unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan and is similar to a foreign government consulate, although the U.S. doesn't recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
Federal prosecutors in Kansas City told The Kansas City Star that Liu is believed to be the first foreign official to face this charge in the United States. While others have been prosecuted for mistreating domestic workers, Liu is accused of violating a law covering the recruitment of foreign workers and their transport into the United States on fraudulent terms, prosecutors said.
ADVERTISEMENT Michael LeRoy, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois, said the charge against Liu was filed under a human trafficking law reauthorized in 2008. He said while similar laws have been used extensively in the U.S., he wasn't aware of that specific charge being used previously against a foreign official and Liu's case "represents a novel circumstance."
"I'm willing to venture it's relatively untested," he said. "She has some serious charge there."
An FBI affidavit filed in the case claims TECO recruited the housekeeper in the Philippines in September 2011. According to the woman's visa application, her two-year employment contract called for her to be paid $1,240 a month, work 40-hour weeks and be entitled to overtime.
Prosecutors claim the woman was actually paid $400 to $450 a month, worked 16- to 18-hour days and was monitored with video surveillance equipment at Liu's home in Johnson County, Kan. They also say Liu took the woman's passport and was "verbally abusive."
Liu, who is also known as Jacqueline Liu, told the woman "she was friends with local law enforcement and known well in the community" and if the woman "acted out, she would be deported," the affidavit said.
Authorities learned about the situation after the women complained to a man from the Philippines who she met a grocery store. Prosecutors said he helped her leave Liu's home in August.
A witness quoted in the affidavit said Liu treated a previous housekeeper similarly, until she "went into a state of depression and stopped eating." It wasn't clear what happened to that woman.
Kurt Taylor Gaubatz, an international studies professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said it was unlikely Liu would qualify for diplomatic immunity in the case.
"There have been several stories about diplomatic abuse of household help both in the U.S. and abroad, and the critical issue is what level (she is)," Gaubatz said. "If you're an ambassador and you beat you domestic help, diplomatic immunity is going to get you off.
"But it doesn't mean it's going to be consequence-free for you" because charges can then be filed in the person's home country.
Gaubatz said Liu may have qualified for immunity if the charges somehow related to her job, but that didn't seem to be the case.
"Lawyers are going to say in order to maintain the duties of a consular officer they need domestic help," he said. "But frankly I don't see that going very far."
Linda Trout, executive director of Kansas City's International Relations Council, said she has known Liu since she arrived in Kansas City about two years ago and worked with her on several occasions. She described her as "businesslike" and "very nice."
Trout also said Liu announced last month that she was returning to Taiwan, and Trout met recently with a lead representative for Taiwan in Washington, where they discussed Liu's pending move and her replacement in Kansas City.
"She was very accommodating. We had a good relationship," Trout said. "She told me more than a month ago she had been reassigned back to Taiwan. She told me it was because of the number of years she had been out of Taiwan and the office wanted her back."
Liu's planned departure also was posted on TECO's website in October.