After a rare trial in a civil forfeiture case, the United States has secured more than $2.2 million that a handful of Chinese nationals put up as part of an illegal immigration scheme, while the jury allowed others to reclaim money they didn’t know was being misused.
Since 2016, prosecutors in the Southern District of Alabama have been adjudicating a number of criminal cases connected to a complicated scheme intended to get Chinese nationals into the country using fraudulently obtained EB-1C visas based on fake partnerships with U.S. businesses.
As Lagniappe has reported, some of the businesses were located throughout the Gulf Coast in cities like Mobile, Daphne, Saraland, Orange Beach and Pensacola.
With an EB-1C visa, U.S. businesses in joint ventures with foreign corporations can bring high level executives or skilled workers into the country much faster than they could using other immigration methods. It’s also easier and quicker for EB-1C holders to become permanent residents of the U.S.
To describe the scheme simply, someone in China would give money to a group of co-conspirators in that country who claimed they could help them invest in American companies and then immigrate to the U.S. to monitor those investments. Those “middle men” in China worked with a similar group in the U.S. that would then connect the “investors” to businesses looking for foregin investments.
Conspirators in the U.S. would then apply for an EB-1C visa by submitting falsified documents to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that made it appear like there was a pre-existing business relationship between those U.S. businesses and an investor in China.
The investors would then put around $300,000 into a U.S. bank to make the fraudulent partnership seem more legitimate. Paperwork the conspirators submitted to USCIS would typically include a bank statement and mention that money, which prosecutors said could often “speed up the process.”
At the center of the scheme in the U.S. were David Jimenez, Gerard Lamia, Tommy Wayne and Chris Dean, of Fairhope. Jimenez, of Miami, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $550,000 last year, while Lamia, Wayne and Dean pleaded guilty and have cooperated with prosecutors.
All are scheduled to be sentenced in November. Three Chinese co-conspirators were also indicted in June, but because China has no extradition policy with the U.S., prosecuting them could be difficult.
As those criminal cases have moved along, prosecutors have also been pursuing a civil forfeiture action against the roughly $4 million Chinese investors put into those U.S. bank accounts — money the government claimed was a substantial part of the crime because it legitimized the phony partnerships.
However, many of the Chinese nationals made attempts to reclaim that money because, according to their attorneys, they were as clueless about what was going on as anyone. Last week, 13 claimants took their case before a federal jury in Mobile, and five of them left the country with their money.
Stewart Hanley, who represented three of the claimants, said his clients simply wanted to invest in and immigrate to the U.S. but trusted the wrong people to help them. As foregin nationals who didn’t speak English and didn’t know U.S. immgration law, Hanley said they were at a disadvantage, adding that his clients’ signatures were forged on several documents throughout the process.
“[They] never knew anything illegal was happening or knew of any fraud. They paid hard-earned money to brokers, consultants and lawyers they thought were professionals to perform a service for them,” Hanley said. “My clients were also kind of kept insulated from different parts of what happened because they had to go through translators and middle men to get any kind of information over there.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Chris Bodnar, one of the prosecutors who handled the forfeiture action and the criminal cases connected to this conspiracy, told Lagniappe the federal government was never required to prove the Chinese owners weren’t in on the conspiracy. He said the U.S. only had to prove that the money put into those U.S. bank accounts was “substantially connected” to the conspiracy.
“We sued the money, and the jury — in every single count — came back and said it was substantially connected to this crime. There was no burden on us to put on any evidence that they knew or were aware or that they intended for it to be used this way,” he said. “It was their burden to show that they had no idea that there were false representations being made to the USCIS about their eligibility [for an EB-1C].”
The jury did find a connection, but at the end of the five-day trial, they still returned approximately $1.1 million to five of the claimants, while the government retained around $2.2 million from the other eight. That’s in addition to roughly $1 million the government had already secured prior to the trial.
It’s worth noting that, with one exception, everyone who successfully reclaimed their money showed up and testified, while many of those who were unsuccessful were unable to enter the U.S. The reasons some couldn’t enter the U.S. varied, but at least one claimant was blocked solely because of this investigation.
However, Bodnar said most were kept out for other reasons identified by the State Department, which had already denied visas to some claimants in the past, according to Bodnar. He said some of the others who were allowed to enter the country already had visas or came from countries other than China.
The prosecution, which included Bodnar as well as AUSAs Donna Dobbins and Kasee Heisterhagen, emphasized that neither prosecutors nor the Department of Justice can force the executive branch to allow someone into the country, but said they did all they could to get the claimants into the U.S. ahead of the trial.
At the end of the day, Hanley said, putting a face with a name likely made all the difference for the jury.
“Everyone who showed up got their money. That really says something,” he added. “I think probably a lot of this money belonged to innocent owners who couldn’t come here or it was defaulted in this case by people who never made a claim — some of whom, I’m sure, were scared to come to the United States.”
Hanley also questioned why there were no indictments or attempts to seize money from businesses and attorneys that — wittingly or unwittingly — profited from helping to facilitate the scheme in the U.S.
Lagniappe has identified some of the local businesses Jimenez and Dean dealt with, who in exchange for the promise of foregin investment or an influx of cash, turned over documents about their business. No owners were ever indicted, and many testified against Jimenez at trial. Bodnar said Dean has also previously admitted to misleading the business owners he worked with in this area, telling Lagniappe, “The lie that was told to them varied based on the sophistication of the business owner.”
“It was, ‘we’ll tell you just enough to get you to sign some paperwork and no more,’” Bodnar added.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Hanley also noted that several immgiration lawyers likely profited from preparing, handling and filing the fraudulent documents that were submitted to USCIS and questioned why the government didn’t seek to recoup any of that money as well.
However, Bodnar said Hanley’s argument, which he also made before the jury, was a “non sequitur” because the money the government seized wasn’t targeted; it was derived from a criminal act, but it was a crucial element of maintaining the visa fraud scheme at the heart of the conspiracy.
“This was a massive international crime against the United States, and this was money directly used to facilitate this crime,” he said. “It’s similar to when we attempt to forfeit the vehicles used to transport drugs. This money wasn’t proceeds from a crime, this was actually a tool used to facilitate the crime.”
Despite winning the case on behalf of his clients, Hanley still raised concerns about the burden in forfeiture cases, which falls on property owners to prove they weren’t involved in a crime, instead of requiring the government to prove that they were.
None of the individuals who failed to reclaim their money from the U.S. government were ever indicted or otherwise accused of a crime, and Hanley said he personally doesn’t believe any of them knew enough about U.S. immigration law to know anything was fraudulent.
Yet, the majority lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even those who didn’t spent thousands on attorneys, translators, flights and lodging in the U.S. on two occasions. Hanley said those costs added up and ultimately ate into what those claimants won back in court.
“It should be [the government’s] burden to show that our people are not innocent owners,” he said. “It’s very expensive to defend a case like this, and innocent people shouldn’t be taken through the ringer.”
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