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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, March 07, 2013 6:04 pm

NY jury gets case of illegal mansion servant

By MARY ESCHAssociated Press

A woman accused of cheating an Indian household servant out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay and keeping her a virtual prisoner at a mansion testified Thursday that a tape recording that appears to show she knew the woman was in the country illegally was not her voice.

Annie George repeated her earlier testimony that she didn't know Valsamma Mathai was in the United States illegally and that she didn't mistreat Mathai during the 5 1/2 years she worked in her 20,000-square-foot home in suburban Rexford.

Mathai testified earlier that she slept in a closet, worked long days without vacation, days off or sick time and wasn't allowed to leave the property, a palatial stone mansion on a cliff overlooking the Mohawk River.

A federal jury in Albany went home shortly after 5 p.m., about three hours after it got the case, and was scheduled to resume deliberations Friday morning.

The case surfaced when Mathai's son in India, Shiju, called the National Human Trafficking Resources Center in 2011.

George is charged with harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.

On Thursday, she said the 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 there could be dire consequences, even jail time, for his mother if she was to tell authorities about working in the United States.

George, repeatedly breaking down in tears on the stand Wednesday, said 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 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 in 2009 along with his 11-year-old son and another man when their private plane crashed after takeoff.

In his closing arguments, defense lawyer Mark Sacco said Annie George was a traditional Indian wife and mother who deferred to her husband on all decisions and was cruelly punished if she didn't.

"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. Belliss said Annie George even took Valsamma to an immigration lawyer once, a charge George denies.

Valsamma Mathai came to the United States legally on a visa after her husband died of cancer, leaving her the sole provider for her two sons and ailing mother. When she left the original family she 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.

Federal prosecutors said Annie George owes Mathai $317,000, based on the minimum wage and overtime for the hours she worked in the George household. Mathai said she was paid only $26,000, much of which she sent to her family in India.

Closing arguments at the Albany trial are expected to begin Thursday.