LOS ANGELES - A local immigration attorney and two of his business associates were arrested Thursday on federal criminal charges for allegedly orchestrating a decade-long employment visa fraud scheme, and using the profits to purchase several hundred thousand dollars worth of vacant cemetery plots.
Kelly Einstein Darwin Giles, 46, the owner of a West Covina, Calif., law practice formerly known as the East West Law Group, was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. He was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned from an out-of-town trip. His two business associates, Joseph Wai-man Wu, 50, and Wu's wife, May Yin-man Wu, 43, were arrested Oct. 15.
The defendants are accused of setting up nearly a dozen shell companies to file fraudulent employment visa petitions on behalf of their clients. Many of the petitions were for H-1B visas, which are reserved for foreign workers with specialized skills, such as accountants and information technology professionals. Authorities say the aliens named in those visa applications never worked for the defendants or the fictitious companies.
ICE agents executed a search warrant at Giles' law office Oct. 15 and seized immigration applications and documents, financial records and computer equipment. At this time, the three defendants are charged in a criminal complaint with visa fraud. The Wus made their initial appearance in federal court Thursday afternoon where a U.S. Magistrate Judge set bond for each at $250,000. Giles is due in court Oct. 16.
"Attorneys are sworn to uphold the law, and those who instead manipulate the system through fraud deserve criminal prosecution," said Acting U.S. Attorney George S. Cardona. "United States immigration laws are intended to provide benefits to individuals who meet specified criteria - not immigration attorneys and opportunists who manipulate the system for personal financial gain."
During Thursday's enforcement actions, ICE agents served notice on a local mortuary seeking to seize 30 vacant burial plots and 20 blank grave monuments. Authorities allege the grave sites, located in Inspiration Meadow and the Garden of Gratitude at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, Calif., were bought by the defendants using proceeds from the visa fraud scheme. ICE investigators emphasize Rose Hills had no involvement in the criminal activity.
According to funeral professionals, cemetery plots appreciate at a rate of up to 10 percent per year and are less susceptible to economic downturns than other types of real estate. It is believed the seizure action is the first in the Central District of California involving grave sites. If the plots are ultimately forfeited to the government, they would be sold at public auction.
"Cemetery plots are certainly a novel way to attempt to launder the proceeds from criminal activity, but as this case shows, we will follow the money trail wherever it leads," said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for ICE John Morton. "ICE's message is simple - America's legal immigration system is not for sale, and we will investigate and prosecute those who compromise the integrity of our system simply to enrich themselves."
The arrests and searches are the culmination of a 2½-year ICE-led investigation that also involved the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS) Fraud Detection and National Security Unit. USCIS' Fraud Detection Unit developed the original lead on the case.
"This case is a perfect example of the effective collaboration between ICE and USCIS to combat fraud and protect the integrity of our immigration system," said Jane Arellano, district director for USCIS in Los Angeles.
During the course of the investigation, the affidavit alleges the defendants told several of their alien clients to lie if questioned by authorities about the visa scheme. One of those clients agreed to secretly record two of his meetings with Giles and Joseph Wu. The affidavit contains excerpts from those recorded conversations in which Giles tells the cooperating witness not to be concerned about lying to investigators saying "they will make threats in hopes that someone will…crack," but they are "bluffing."
According to the nearly 200-page case affidavit, the defendants charged from $6,000 to $50,000 to file fraudulent employment visa petitions on behalf of alien clients. So far, investigators have identified about 100 aliens for whom fraudulent petitions were filed. Authorities say some of those foreign nationals may have ultimately adjusted to U.S. permanent resident status and received "green cards." Agents are continuing to review immigration records to identify any ineligible foreign nationals who may have received employment visas as a result of the defendants' actions. USCIS will revoke or deny the petitions and subsequent applications involving aliens who fraudulently obtained benefits.