It's been a big day in Washington for two high-tech San Diego farmers.
Pierre Sleiman, Jr., who runs a North County outfit called Go Green Agriculture with his father Pierre Sleiman, has been fêted at the White House as a "Champion of Change."
"Go Green Agriculture is an innovative company that grows produce inside climate-controlled greenhouses using hydroponics," according to a July 29 news release from the American Farm Bureau Federation heralding the event.
"Sleiman [Jr.] sits on the board of directors of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and will graduate this year from the California Farm Bureau Federation’s leadership program."
A profile on the Whole Foods website adds, "Pierre Sleiman Sr. and his son, Pierre Sleiman Jr. wanted to spend more time together. Pierre Sr. had worked for a while manufacturing t-shirts and Pierre Jr. was going to UCSD to earn a degree in business and technology….
"The father and son duo put their heads together and combined Pierre Sr.’s business background with Pierre Jr.’s understanding of newer technology and came up with Go Green Agriculture….
"Now Pierre Sr. and his son get to spend plenty of time together bringing sustainable crops to local communities around Southern California. They have recently decided to convert to being a certified organic operation and we hope they’ll continue to grow."
More praise has come from San Diego Magazine, which put Pierre Jr. on its “50 to Watch in 2013,” in a blurb headlined "The New Urban Farmer."
Last August, television station KGTV ran a story on Pierre Jr., noting, "With no agricultural background, the 27-year old Sleiman started it four years ago after graduating with a degree in computer science."
Before going green, the elder Sleiman was in another line of work.
As described on Gust.com, a website that promotes start-up companies to venture capitalists, the senior Sleiman "founded and operated CMT Blues, [an] international garment manufacturing business from 1991 to 2003.
"Had three factories: Honduras (1,200 employees); Mexico (200 employees); San Diego (150 employees).
"In 1996, [he] pioneered [the] Joint Venture Program with state of California Department of Corrections under Proposition 91 allowing private sector business to operate inside prisons and employ prison labor."
The Los Angeles Times covered the operation in September 1999.
"At CMT's headquarters in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, rows of inmates working in assembly lines transform sheets of fabric into T-shirts. The din of sewing machines and voices fills the cavernous space.
“A 14-foot fence topped with coiled razor wire encloses the workshop. Three more fences, one electrified, surround the entire prison.
"Despite the grim conditions, Pierre Sleiman, CMT's owner, cannot help but smile as he surveys his 70-employee work force.
"By hiring prisoners, he keeps labor costs low enough to manufacture in the U.S. instead of offshore in Mexico or Honduras. That enables him to slap coveted 'Made in USA' tags on his clothing and charge a slight premium.
“Firms employing inmates don't have to pay for medical benefits, pensions, state disability insurance, federal unemployment taxes or vacation time.
"'I'd say our guys have reached a level where they are competitive with any company on the outside,' Sleiman said, adding that CMT sales should double this year to several million dollars. He would not provide specific figures."
By July 2004, as reported by the Times, things had changed.
"One of the sweeteners in owner Pierre Sleiman's state contract was that inmate trainees could work for free so long as they were not producing items for sale. However, the state labor commissioner ruled otherwise.
"Then a local television station aired allegations by two inmates that they were required to sew 'Made in U.S.A.' labels in shirts from Honduras. The inmates were placed in solitary confinement, accused of sabotaging the venture.
"Though the allegations of phony labeling and sabotage were not proven, the episode led the inmates and the textile workers union to sue the company and the state. The suit alleged retaliation against the two inmates, and failure to pay prevailing wages and to compensate trainees as required.
"On the first day of trial in 2002, San Diego County Superior Court Judge William C. Pate ruled that CMT Blues owed more than $840,000 in back wages and penalties, plus attorney fees of $500,000.
"After he shut down operations, Sleiman filed for arbitration, claiming that the state's misrepresentations and negligence cost him and his business at least $7 million. State officials deny the allegations."
A woman who answered the phone at Go Green said that since they were at the White House, the Sleimans weren't immediately available for comment.