An Italian government worker posted at the San Francisco consulate and his wife were arrested and charged with turning a Brazilian woman into an indentured servant after luring the woman to the United States with promises of a better life.
The couple, who spent the weekend in jail and had their young children placed in the custody of Protective Services, allege they are the victims of a "scheming young woman" bent on gaining U.S. citizenship by any means. They "vehemently" deny the allegations and continue to have the support of the Italian government.
Consular General Fabrizio Marcelli is one of five people who signed for the couple's bail of $250,000 each. Marcelli also appeared at the couple's bail hearing Tuesday to assure the court that Giuseppe Penzato would remain employed at the consulate as an administrative clerk through at least Dec. 31, 2013.
Guiseppe Penzato and his wife, Kesia Penzato, were charged with one count each of forced labor, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Federal prosecutors didn't identify the woman. She also filed a lawsuit last year with similar allegations using the alias Jane Doe.
The couple are scheduled to enter their pleas next month, but in court filings and in an interview Wednesday, one of the couple's lawyers said they deny the charges and will plead not guilty at their arraignment scheduled for July 28.
A federal investigator alleges the saga began when Kesia Penzato reconnected with her childhood friend from Brazil through a social networking website in December 2008. Kesia Penzato told her friend that her life had improved since moving the United States. She was living in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, having married an Italian 20 years her senior who worked at his country's consulate in San Francisco.
Her friend's fortunes weren't so good. She was separated from her husband and on the brink of losing her health care job in Brazil.
So Kesia Penzato invited her childhood friend to come live with the family in San Francisco and work for her as a housekeeper and nanny for $1,500 a month and free lodging.
The plan was for the friend to pursue a nursing education and create a better life for her and her son in the United States. The worker alleges that she received a domestic servant visa with Giuseppe Penzato "pulling strings" to ensure her application was approved. She started in August 2009.
Three months later, the worker alleges to have fled the home with her clothes in a garbage bag and tales of indentured servitude complete with physical and sexual abuse. The worker claims in her 2010 lawsuit, and prosecutors allege in their criminal complaint filed Monday, that the Penzatos withheld pay and food from her during her three months in their home. The woman alleges that Kesia Penzato physically assaulted her twice.
The worker alleges that Giuseppe Penzato on several occasions enter the bedroom she shared with his 5-year-old daughter at night and ran his hand over her body, buttocks and breasts while she feigned sleep. She claims that Giuseppe Penzato took her passport and kept it from her for three months and made her a virtual prisoner.
She said the couple claimed the whole time that they have diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution and she was powerless to stop them. She also alleges deputy consul Marcello Curci told her the same thing when she went to work for him for a few days after leaving the Penzatos.
Curci declined comment when reached at the consulate Wednesday. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Melissa Saurwein, the lead investigator, said in a court filing that the State Department advised the worker that the Penzatos could not invoke diplomatic immunity in this case.
The Penzatos' lawyers insist that contretemps have been blown out of proportion.
The couple's lawyers allege in court papers that "this case is nothing more than a civil wage and hour case brought by a scheming young woman to facilitate her goal of living permanently in the United States."
The woman is allowed to remain in the United States under a special process called "continued presence" that allows victims of human trafficking to temporarily live and work in the U.S. and receive Health and Human Service benefits. Douglas Schwartz, Giuseppe Penzato's lawyer, alleges the worker knew that "continued presence" is a pathway to remaining in the U.S. legally.
Schwartz also said in an interview and stated in a court filing that the worker attended classes at a community college four days a week and entertained several boyfriends with "sleepovers" during her time with the Penzatos.
"I don't know how she can claim to be a prisoner," Schwartz said.
He said the family was "traumatized" when federal agents arrested the couple Friday morning and placed the children in government custody. Schwartz speculated the arrests were made Friday morning because Kesia and her two children were scheduled to leave for Brazil later that day for a vacation. He said they had round trip tickets and intended to return.
"This should never have been ratcheted up to a criminal prosecution," Schwartz said.