Llenroc owner Annie George took the stand in her own defense Wednesday afternoon in the federal harboring case against her, pushing back on prosecution contentions relating to her “servant” and George’s involvement in the family’s financial life.
In sometimes emotional testimony, George testified that the woman was hardly a servant. The family instead took her in and treated her like one of their own.
George’s emotions came through when talking about her late husband Mathai Kolath George and her eldest son George M. Kolath Jr., who were both killed in a June 2009 plane crash into the Mohawk River, leaving George to keep the family and their five other children going.
But it was her husband who handled the family’s finances and the family’s hotel business, as well as any agreements with the servant, Valsamma Mathai, George testified.
To emphasize her husband’s insistence on control in those areas, and her own lack of involvement in the family’s financial affairs, George made allegations against her late husband, under questioning by her attorney.
George, who appeared to be caught off guard by her attorney’s line of questioning, alleged that when she interfered in the family’s financial life, her husband hit her, sending her to the hospital three times.
When her husband died in 2009, she then inherited control of the family’s hotel operations, the ones that backed the family’s move to the opulent Llenroc estate in Rexford, only to find out those hotel operations were anything but successful.
The business owned or operated six hotels from Ohio to the Catskills. All of them were buried in mortgages and debts. Only two remain in their control and open, and those are losing money and in bankruptcy.
Regarding an alleged agreement that was to pay the woman, Valsamma Mathai, $1,000 per month to be a servant for the family, George said she knew nothing of it.
She also never knew of Mathai’s immigration status until after she was pulled from the home by authorities.
“I never gave her assignments, I never gave her lists,” George testified under questioning by her attorney Mark Sacco. “I treated her like family, like my mother.”
It is George’s alleged knowledge of the servant’s immigration status and employment agreement that are at the heart of the government’s case. George is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison, though she could get far less.
George’s testimony came at the end of the trial day Wednesday, leaving no time for cross-examination from prosecutor Richard Belliss. That is expected to take place this morning. Closing arguments in the case and deliberations could then follow.
Prosecutors worked this week to prove that George knew Mathai was an illegal immigrant and then concealed Mathai from detection for financial gain.
Sacco has argued that his client did not know about the servant’s immigration status or how much she was being paid, because George’s late husband handled the finances.
Prosecutors wrapped up their case Wednesday morning, putting Mathai’s son Shiju Mathai on the stand. He told of his worries about what his mother was being paid and the hours she was working.
Prosecutors also entered into evidence through his testimony English transcripts of phone conversations he allegedly had with George in the days and weeks after his mother was pulled from the home.
In one conversation, George allegedly told the son she was worried about his mother, that because she was taken by authorities, she would be going to jail and then be deported.
“If she says anything about working, Shiju, it would be a big crime,” George was quoted as saying in the transcript. “They’ll start adding up all the taxes and everything, for all this time.”
Mathai alleged in testimony earlier that she worked for the George family, caring for their children, straight from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, every day, for more than five years with no time off for vacation, sickness or personal time.
Over the 66 months she worked for the family, she should have been paid $66,000, but received only about $25,000.
Her immigration status notwithstanding, a labor department official calculated in testimony Wednesday that for 17 hours per day over five and a half years, labor laws meant she was owed more than $317,000, calculated at minimum wage.
Sacco started and finished his defense case Wednesday afternoon, putting on a half dozen witnesses who countered Mathai’s version of her treatment. Sacco also asked several if, in their interactions with Mathai, she had ever asked for help. She had not.
Family friend Nichole Yungandreas, who stayed with the family for a time after the 2009 plane crash and who was at the home when Mathai was taken by investigators, said Mathai never worked 17 hours in a day, it wasn’t possible. When Mathai needed eyeglasses, she got them. When she wanted to watch TV, she did.
But the center of the defense case Tuesday afternoon was George.
George said she came to the U.S. in 1996 and worked as a pharmacist for a time. She married her husband soon after arriving, though it was an arrangement that either could have backed out of.
They eventually moved to a home in Catskill with their growing family. It was there, in 2005, that they met Mathai. A man she described as a pastor brought her to them. Her husband handled the conversation and Mathai ended up staying with the family.
George said she never asked for Mathai’s legal papers. Her husband would have been the one to ask for them.
The family later moved to Menands, then, in 2008, to Llenroc.
All along, though, Mathai wasn’t like a servant, George said. She helped out with what she could and what she wanted to do.
George said she didn’t know of any $1,000 per month payment arrangement. The family provided her with a place to stay and food to eat.
“She became family,” George said. “Her needs were our needs.”
When Mathai needed money, George said her husband would give it to her.
Regarding Mathai’s immigration status, George said she tried to book Mathai a plane trip home to see her sons in 2010, but Mathai never produced her documents for the flight.
But she never found out Mathai’s actual status as an illegal immigrant, one whose original visa was no longer valid. Sacco referenced in questioning Mathai’s earlier testimony, that Mathai didn’t know her own status.
Regarding the family’s finances, George acknowledged a $5 million life insurance payout that came after her husband’s death. Most of that, about $4 million, was already earmarked to one of the family’s hotels per a prior agreement with a bank.
The remaining $1 million she put toward finalizing the $1.9 million purchase of Llenroc. The $900,000 balance of the purchase came from loans from friends and family. She said she couldn’t bear to move her family from the home that held some of their last memories of her husband and eldest son.