Hugh Tran paid thousands of dollars to come to the United States, where she was expecting to participate in an internship program to help further her dream of becoming a hotel manager.
When she arrived, though, Tran found herself sweeping floors — earning next to nothing and receiving no training related to the career she put on hold in Vietnam to come to America.
“I tried to remain hopeful. I thought, ‘maybe it’s just like this in the beginning,” Tran said. “I spent $7,000, and I borrowed that money to come here because I thought I’d be able to pay it back very soon and very easily.”
In Vietnam, where the average monthly salary is $145, that $7,000 is no small debt, and Tran is only one of 205 foreign victims who were lured to the U.S. from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East as part of a “massive” fraud scheme orchestrated by David Marzano.
In 2002, Marzano was sentenced to 15 months in prison for a similar conspiracy involving the unlawful smuggling of undocumented aliens — a conviction that stemmed from a staffing agency he operated in the Atlanta area utilizing an illegal workforce.
Upon release, Marzano began using the aliases “Paul Cohen” and “David Cole” to start new staffing agencies and shell companies that laid the groundwork for his most recent scheme.
At the heart of that fraud was the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program, which brings more than 275,000 foreign nationals annually to the U.S. on temporary visas through employment, internship and training programs.One of those programs is specifically limited to training visa holders with a college education and managerial experience from their home country — meaning businesses can’t use those exchange visitors for ordinary employment or work.
Staffing agencies are also expressly prohibited from being involved in the program. Yet Marzano was able to abuse the program’s “lack of oversight” and place program participants in low-paying positions by misrepresenting the nature of his businesses.
That was done through an extensive scheme that ultimately tricked numerous employers, who hired unsuspecting exchange visitors as menial laborers at businesses all along the Gulf Coast.
“A lot of the companies Marzano owned had names very similar to legitimate companies, like Crowned Partnership Group. When anybody asked, they’d say, ‘Yes. We are the management and training wing of Crowne Plaza Hotels,’ but of course, that wasn’t true,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Bodnar said. “Individuals, like Ms. Tran, would come to the United States believing they were going to be part of this internship and training program, but Marzano and his co-conspirators would instead pawn them off as menial labor after they’d worked and struggled to put together the money they needed to come here.”
At Marzano’s sentencing in Mobile last month, Tran was the only victim who made the trip to testify before U.S. District Judge William H. Steele, though roughly a dozen others sent letters.
Bodnar said many of Marzano’s victims weren’t even aware they’d been tricked at first, which was exacerbated by the fact that, for most, English wasn’t their first language. He said the pattern prosecutors saw interviewing victims was one of confusion, anger and helplessness.“For the first three months, many didn’t realize they’d been part of a bait-and-switch operation because there were always excuses,” he said. “The second three months, they started to question it. By the third, they were angry, but many of them said, “I’ve just got three more months here — I don’t know what to do, I don’t know who to go to — I’ll just stick it out.”
Bodnar is one of the prosecutors that built the case against Marzano, who pleaded guilty to wire and mail fraud charges central to his scheme last February. Two indicted conspirators included Marzano’s wife, Laura Blair, and daughter, Janece Burke.
While Steele called their crimes “serious business,” he also granted a downward departure for all three defendants based on their high levels of cooperation with the federal prosecutors. As a result, each sentence was set below the statutory minimum.
As the primary orchestrator of the fraud, Marzano was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison, three years of probation and ordered to pay more than $815,000 in restitution. For their lesser roles, Blair and Burke were each sentenced to five years of probation. Neither received jail time.
Like Marzano, Blair was ordered to pay $815,570 of restitution to victims. However, because of her limited involvement, Burke was only ordered to pay restitution of $271,856.
At least some of their reduced sentences were granted at the request of prosecutors, who said the defendants’ cooperation, particularly Burke’s, had proved helpful in other investigations that Bodnar said had led to “significant administrative and criminal actions throughout the country.”
While the 205 victims were placed in jobs spanning from western Florida to Texas, roughly 20 of those were located in Mobile, Spanish Fort and the Gulf Shores area — which are all known to see an influx of seasonal labor as the tourism economy grows during summer months.
However, Bodnar said the vast majority of those employers had no idea what Marzano and his other family members were up to, and as result don’t have any criminal liability.
“They were reaching out to staffing agencies Marzano owned for servers, busboys and people who can change sheets at hotels,” he said. “I don’t believe we had any instances where an employer knew a person was supposed to be going through a managerial training program. In fact, most were very shocked and said, ‘No, we were never asked to train anyone. We asked for a waitress.’”
According to Bodnar, the restitution Marzano and his co-defendants pay will go directly to the victims overseas, whom federal officials are already working to locate and contact.