For three months in 2009, a Brazilian woman claims she was beaten and assaulted, overworked and barely fed after being lured to San Francisco by an Italian Consulate employee and his wife to keep house and care for their young children.
When she complained to the couple, she says the couple told her they were immune from prosecution and that the laws of the United States did not apply to them.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office thinks otherwise. It has arrested and charged Giuseppe Penzato, 55, and Kesia Penzato, 33, for forced labor.
The Penzatos failed to pay the woman her salary, physically and verbally abused her, and controlled when she could come and go from their North Beach home, according to a court affidavit filed Friday by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Melissa Saurwein.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Giuseppe Penzato’s attorney Douglas Schwartz said the woman’s allegations were false.
“Part of these bogus claims stem from the fact that she wants to stay in the United States,” Schwartz said. The woman has received a waiver from deportation in return for her testimony, and may be able to apply for permanent residency.
The alleged victim, whose name was redacted from court records, sued the couple in civil court in 2010. The couple then counter-sued, accusing the woman of breach of contract and of secretly recording their private conversations and then disclosing them to Giuseppe Penzato’s consulate colleagues.
“This is a glorified wage-and-hour case — a civil case — and it should never have been ratcheted up to a federal criminal matter,” said Schwartz, who conceded that Giuseppe Penzato lacks immunity as a clerk and not a diplomat.
Saurwein said Kesia Penzato, a childhood friend of the woman from Brazil, urged her to come to San Francisco. But three days after she arrived, Kesia allegedly told her “that she was in their home to work, not to sleep all day.” Days later, her key was allegedly taken from her.
During the work week, Kesia Penzato only allowed the woman “to have a cup of milk in the morning, occasionally with some crackers, and no other food for the rest of the day,” Saurwein said. The woman also accused Giuseppe Penzato of repeatedly sexually assaulting her in the room she shared with the couple’s daughter, but prosecutors did not file related charges.
The Penzatos were released from custody Tuesday on a $250,000 bond. Efforts to reach the couple Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The woman said she also complained to an Italian vice consul whom she began working for. A consular employee reached by phone Tuesday morning, who declined to provide her name, said only that Giuseppe Penzato was “a really, really good person” and that the accusations were “all lies.”
A neighbor of the couple who wished to remain anonymous described Giuseppe Penzato as “really friendly” and said he couldn’t fathom the father of two could have made anyone his slave.
“He’d never be cast in a movie for such a role,” the neighbor said.
The woman and the couple involved in the case see it very differently.
Source: Federal court filings