Federal authorities have secured a guilty plea related to a multi-million-dollar conspiracy that allowed numerous foreign nationals to enter the country on fraudulent visas set up through businesses in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

So far, Lagniappe has only found two indictments related to this case. Filed in late October, they allege a number of conspiracy and money laundering charges against Fairhope resident Christopher Allen Dean as well as David Jesus Jimenez of Miami, Florida.

However, as many as 16 local businesses may be implicated in the conspiracy for supposedly participating in a scheme to set up fraudulent visas in exchange for cash from the People’s Republic of China.

Dean and Jimenez’ indictments mention meeting with business owners or using bank accounts tied to Mobile, Daphne, Saraland, Orange Beach, Pensacola and Brewton. Earlier this week, a spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown’s office declined to identify those businesses specifically or speak to whether their owners could face charges as well.

The root of this alleged conspiracy lies in the EB-1 visa program, which allows for expedited immigration for foreign workers meeting certain conditions and allows immigrants to bypass U.S. Department of Labor certifications required when entering the country on other types of work visas.

With an EB-1C visa, U.S. businesses in joint ventures with foreign corporations can bring higher-level “executives and managers” from overseas into the country much faster than they could using other methods. It’s also much easier for a foreign national, their spouse and any unmarried children they have to become permanent citizens if they’ve obtained an EB-IC visa.

Dean is a resident of Fairhope but his business, Eco Strong Solutions LLC, was incorporated in Eight Mile, according to records with the Secretary of State’s office. Lagniappe reached out to Dean seeking comment on this report through his businesses and his defense attorney but had not received a response as of this publication’s deadline.

According to charges Dean pleaded guilty to in late November, both he and Jimenez helped recruit business owners in the Mobile area and in South Florida who were willing to submit fraudulent EB-1C petitions in order to help Chinese nationals enter the U.S. under false pretenses.

In return, their indictments suggest Dean, Jimenez and the participating business owners received money from overseas from 2011 to 2016 and saw more than $4.3 million moved back and forth between Chinese banks and banks in Alabama and Florida.

However, court documents suggest the groundwork for this arrangement was laid in 2010 when Dean first met an associate of Jimenez’ while seeking Chinese investors for his business.

Shortly after traveling to China to meet with potential investors, Dean was asked to use his business to file a fraudulent EB-1C petition in order to help a Chinese resident he’d met there enter the U.S. under the auspices of being recruited for a joint businesses venture.

According to the indictment, Dean agreed to participate, and after the petition he filed was approved in September 2012, Dean received a wire transfer from China totaling $21,000.

However, no joint venture ever existed between “Dean, his business, the Chinese businessman or any Chinese-based business.” Later, Dean is said to have reached out to his Chinese contacts directly — offering to act as a middleman between conspirators in China seeking access to the U.S. and the domestic businesses owners needed to facilitate “the scheme.”

Over the next five years, the indictments claim, Dean and Jimenez went on to recruit other businesses owners to petition for similar fraudulent EB-1C visas for nonexistent businesses ventures, with everyone collecting money along the way.

Based on information filed in federal court, participating business owners could receive an upfront payment of $2,000 just for applying for a EB-1C. If it was approved, those business owners would typically receive as much as $27,000, the indictment claims.

However, that’s only a fraction of what was being paid by those attempting to gain entry into the U.S. from China, which could typically cost immigrants as much as $300,000.

That money was placed into any number of U.S. bank accounts that were typically set up in the name of the immigrating party so there would appear to be significant funds available for the nonexistent business ventures when their EB-1C petition was reviewed by federal immigration agencies. An indictment suggested that approach was a key to the fraud’s success for years.

“This was comprised of a $100,000 upfront fee, and then an additional charge of $200,000 if the fraudulent EB-IC petition was approved,” the indictment reads. “It is not known whether the money was actually paid by the Chinese national or paid by some other person or entity on behalf of the Chinese national.”

Even more concerning, both indictments state that the “whereabouts of some of the Chinese nationals who fraudulently entered the United States [was] unknown” as recently as Nov. 22, 2016. Earlier this month, Brown’s office also declined to answer additional questions about the whereabouts of any foreign nationals that might be known.

While the indictments for Dean and Jimenez mention other co-conspirators both in the U.S. and China, Dean appears to be the only person from the Mobile area that’s been formally charged with any crime at this point. He’s also the only named defendant that has moved to enter a guilty plea.

Lagniappe will have more on this case as information is released from the Justice Department.