In September, Somduth Soborun, the Mauritius ambassador to the United States, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to pay his housekeeper the U.S. minimum wage while he represented Mauritius at the United Nations in New York in 2009. The ambassador was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and nearly $25,000 in back wages to the woman, whom he brought from the Philippines to take care of his home in New Jersey.
According to documents filed in the case and statements in U.S. federal court, the woman worked in Sorborun’s home from late December 2008 through early August 2009 « cleaning, doing laundry, ironing and taking care of the family dog, usually for 12 hours per day, six days per week. »
Although Soborun signed a contract which provided for an hourly wage as well as for overtime pay for any hours exceeding 40 per week, he only paid the worker $1,000 per month, regardless of how many hours she worked each month, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
The case has drawn much publicity in Mauritius and in the New York area, and has led to a complaint filed in the Supreme Court of Mauritius by the ambassador alleging that a newspaper in Mauritius intended to damage his reputation by publishing a « libelous and malicious » article about him.
Soborun, 61, who has served in diplomatic posts in Egypt, Pakistan, the United Nations and now represents Mauritius to the United States and Canada, says he never underpaid the housekeeper. He says he is the victim of a conspiracy by the woman to extort money from him.
In the following interview, he talks about the case with Pamela de St. Antoine, Weekend’s correspondent in Washington.
In September, you pleaded guilty to a count of failure to pay the US minimum wage to a Filipina maid who had worked in your home in 2009 while you served as Mauritius ambassador to the United Nations. On Nov. 25, a U.S Magistrate Judge in New Jersey ordered you to pay restitution of nearly $25,000 in back wages to the woman as well as a $5,000 fine. Since then, you have said that this case is far more complicated that it seems. What is your view of events?
You have rightly pointed out that the allegations relate to 2009 when I was Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. It was only in August 2012, three years later, for the first time and to my great dismay that I learned that my former maid had leveled allegations that I allegedly failed to pay her overtime. She had left employment abruptly in August 2009 in breach of her contract of employment. One should certainly ask the question as to why it took so long to bring the false allegations of failure to pay overtime to embarrass me in my new post as Ambassador to the United States. I pleaded guilty notwithstanding that I always paid her salaries as per the law and as per her contract of employment. She left without prior notice taking away precious jewels of my wife. I had at that time reported the matter to the Police. I had informed the Office of US Foreign Missions in New York by a letter dated 7 August 2009 that the maid had quit her job in breach of the contract. Furthermore in a letter dated 16 September 2009, I had also asked the U.S. Office of Foreign Missions that I be relieved of my responsibilities towards the maid. A purely private domestic matter has been blown out of proportion. Had I known that there would have been such propaganda, I would have gone for a full blown trial to dispute the claim of my former maid. The fine was US $5000, whereas the sum of $25,000 was an out of court of settlement.
If you think the charge was unjust, then why did you plead guilty and accept a plea bargain that included the fine and payment of back wages to the domestic worker?
Diplomatic practice and the life of diplomats can be very vulnerable. One can be the subject of hostage, retaliation without the making of his own. A heavy responsibility weighs on the shoulder of a diplomat and as such he/she has often to balance between his own personal interest and that of the State that he/she is representing. In most of the cases the interests of the State he or she represents, prevail.
When confronted with the charge after three years, although I considered it unjustified, I opted in the larger interest of the country to enter a plea agreement so as to avoid a long protracted court battle which would have served no interest to the country and the core of the Mauritian Diplomacy which I had so successfully led so far in the United States and in particular in my capacity as the co-chair of the Economic Development  Committee of the African Group of Ambassadors spearheading the Extension of the Third Country Fabric Provision of the AGOA.
Hence once the agreement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was obtained for a partial waiver of my diplomatic immunity to enter a plea for ‘failure to pay overtime’ which I still believe was not due, I entered the guilty plea to avoid a full blown trial, to close the book and move forward. I had hoped that it would be viewed in that perspective. However it appears that some persons with an agenda of their own have sought to exploit the situation to cast aspersion on me.
Were any government funds used in the payment of the $25,000 back wages and $5,000 fine?
No. The employment of the domestic employee was a purely private and domestic matter. I was never granted any official allowance to employ a maid and no state funds were involved in her employment. The contract of employment concerned solely the employee and myself. As such I had paid for the airfare of the domestic employee to come to the U.S from the Philippines. I had provided her accommodation free of charge – a beautiful fully furnished room. She enjoyed the same meals for which she did not have to incur any expenses, like all the members of the family and cooked by my wife. She was treated like a member of the family and was having free access to and from the house. Furthermore, the amount of restitution fee/compensation of nearly US $25,000 and the fine of US $5,000 were paid from my own personal savings. This matter has had a devastating and huge financial impact on me at no cost to government and taxpayers’ money – unlike what had happened in the recent past, in another Mauritian Diplomatic Mission whereby following the unfair dismissal of an employee by the Mauritius Mission, the compensation and other related fines and Court costs have been caused to be paid out of public government funds. Furthermore I reiterate that I always have paid Miss Venzon properly – which was US $1600 (Rs 48,000) per month between December 2008 and July 2009 – until she left her employment on her own without prior notice.
The FBI and the U.S Attorney’s Office in New Jersey investigated the case and they concluded that the woman was inadequately compensated. Did you knowingly underpay her?
I have never underpaid anyone. I have explained in my plaint (filed in December in Mauritius) how the maid was employed upon the recommendation of the former driver, why the former driver was dismissed by the Mauritius Mission, New York, following my complaint. The driver’s claim for overtime was rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was followed by retaliation by the maid, theft of jewelry at my residence reported to the Mayor of Englewood and the Police in August 2009.
I do not know whether the FBI have at all enquired about first, the incident of insubordination, threat and dangerous behavior of the driver and secondly, the larceny by the maid. I cannot confirm whether there has been a fair and impartial inquiry into those matters.
As far as I am concerned despite the fact that I accepted to pay the overtime and wages claimed by the employee, I have honored all the terms of the contract of employment. I have documentary evidence and can produce salary payment receipts to Miss Venzon for the period December 2008 to July 2009 to rebut the allegations. Despite the fact that I have accepted to pay the alleged overtime claim, I maintain that this was not due by me as I never asked her to perform any overtime. I paid her lawfully between December 2008 and July 2009 until she left and this matter was reported as early as 7 August 2009 when I reported the matter to the US Office of the Foreign Missions in New York.
Ambassadors are usually given diplomatic immunity that shield them from legal action in their host countries. Why wasn’t diplomatic immunity invoked?
I believe in equality – I did not want and do not want to be perceived as abusing my position of immunity as a shield to avoid facing a misdemeanor charge before the District Court of New Jersey. Initially I had decided to rebut the charges of misdemeanor in respect of alleged failure to pay overtime and minimum wages. But later, in order to avoid embarrassment to the Mauritian Diplomacy over a private domestic dispute concerning the employment of my former maid, I contemplated to offer a guilty plea after consultation with and following the partial waiver of diplomatic immunity by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mauritius.
You have said that you are a victim of a plan between the maid and your former embassy chauffeur, a relative of the woman, to extort money from you. You also claim that the maid stole jewelry from your residence. Did you bring charges against her for extortion or theft? Was there a police investigation?
Chronology of events is important. The maid, Miss Venzon, a Filipino national, was strongly recommended to me by the official driver, Mr. Eduardo L. Silva also a Filipino National and employed at the Mauritius Mission, New York for over 19 years. Once Miss Venzon arrived in the US and started working at our residence in Englewood, NJ, she would spend her weekly day off at the house of Mr. Eduardo L. Silva with whom she entertained very close relationship.
The driver’s employment was terminated on 10 June 2009 on grounds of insubordination and gross misconduct towards me on the instructions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The driver rushed to obtain the pro-bono services of a group calling itself Migrant Heritage Commission and claimed payment of overtime amounting to US $ 192,395.65 (Rs 6,000,000.00) for a period of 19 years. That claim was outright rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After the dismissal of the driver the attitude of the maid changed drastically towards me and my family. The situation became very tense and Miss Venzon would most of her time do her job in a careless and irresponsible manner. The maid left her job two months later without prior notice.
It must also be noted that only after the termination of the driver with whom the domestic employee was very familiar and with whom she spent all her free time, the maid left employment taking away my wife’s jewelry. I reported the theft of jewelry by the maid to the Police and to the Office of the U.S Foreign Missions in New York by way of a letter dated 7 August 2009.
Employing domestic workers to help with the running of foreign embassies is a common practice in the diplomatic world. Most countries provide ambassadors with budgets to hire cooks, housekeepers, gardeners and chauffeurs, as well as budgets to maintain an embassy and an ambassador’s residence, as the job often requires extensive entertaining. Were you given funds for a chauffeur and a maid while representing Mauritius at the United Nations or most recently in Washington?
All our overseas missions are provided with an official driver for the Representational Car used by the Ambassador. The official driver is recruited by the Missions on the approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their salary is paid directly by the government of Mauritius. In this respect I had an official driver when I was Ambassador in New York and I have an official driver in Washington DC. In both cases they are paid by government.
As far as I am concerned, the government did not provide any funds for employment/payment of wages and salary to domestic maid when I was Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York from May 2006 to December 2010.
All the expenses including wages and salary were paid directly from my personal savings. The same applies to my maid I currently employ in Washington D.C. Her salary and other expenses are borne by me.
You just returned to Washington from Mauritius, where you conferred with government officials about the case. What was the conclusion of these discussions?
Actually my wife and I were on a short vacation to Mauritius, I must add that same was paid from our personal savings. It was not an official visit. However, I seized the opportunity to meet some government officials over there.
I gave my version of the synopsis of events leading to the guilty plea and to the out of court agreement as recommended by my lawyer in the United States.  ?As far as I am concerned, the employment of the maid was a purely private and domestic matter as no official funds were involved.
Nevertheless I had to give my own version of facts to relatives, friends and acquaintances. The payment of fine in relation to a misdemeanor charge, that is, failure to pay overtime is a petty matter. I cannot understand why it was blown out of proportions. It would appear that a handful of persons with an agenda of their own, have tried to make a storm in a tea cup.
While in Mauritius, you filed a complaint against L’Express newspaper, Raj Meetarbhan, its editor-in-chief, Rabin Bhujun, editor, and Vijay Makhan, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and member of the MMM, claiming damages of Rs 150 million for defaming your reputation and public remarks about this incident. What are you hoping to achieve with this complaint?
In view that some articles were published in the local press and in view that those articles were defamatory, they constituted an attack on my person and furthermore they were devoid of any objectivity and impartiality, i.e there was no attempt to seek my version of things or my explanations, I was left with the only recourse to take legal actions against the publishers and editors of those newspapers.
I come from one of the many well-respected families of Triolet. I believe that a free press is the lifeblood of democracy and that the pen is mightier that the sword. But I am of the view that some may have misused their position in the press to make a calculated character assassination in relation to me.
I have no problem with the press reporting on a matter, however bad it may be to the person or persons concerned.
But for someone to report on something and to create a Pandora Box to invite insults and attacks out of spite to despise a person in view of the general public is rather unacceptable.
I have been Ambassador to Egypt from 2004 to May 2006, Ambassador to the United Nations, New York from May 2006 to Dec 2010 and Ambassador to the United States, Washington D.C from Jan 2011 to date. Until a few weeks ago, I never had any insulting, derogatory and defamatory remarks from any quarters.
The Court case generated considerable coverage in the New York/New Jersey area media and in Mauritius, went viral on the internet. It certainly was not a positive story for Mauritius. How has this affected you personally and impacted your duties as ambassador in Washington?
I have spent 25 years on the international scene in the field of diplomacy. During my various postings abroad I have employed several domestic employees who have worked honestly with me and my family in my household and I never have had any complaints from them.
Presently, I have a maid from Mauritius employed under the same terms and conditions as Miss Venzon was employed. The present maid is in employment for more than 8 months and is happily working with us without any complaints, always forthcoming and helpful.
The readers have only been exposed to one side of the story. They are not aware first why I waived immunity and in secondly, in what circumstances I pleaded guilty.
It has put me in a position where I have to explain to relatives, friends and acquaintances my version of events. So far people are comforted and relieved by my explanations. As far as my duties as Ambassador in Washington D.C is concerned, the United States Department of State there is no problem. It is business as usual. But I must add that people in Mauritius and abroad who are acquainted to me know that I am a person of integrity.