Two executives at an IT firm in Silicon Valley appeared in federal court last week on charges that they engaged in H-1B visa fraud over more than 10 years, according to federal prosecutors.
Mary Christeena, 47, and Elangovan Punniakoti, 52, were both charged March 31 with a single count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and six counts of visa fraud. There were in federal court for the first time on April 12.
Christeena and Punniakoti were president and CEO, respectively of the Silicon Valley company Innovate Solutions, Inc. which was made into a corporation in 2008.
54 Phony H-1B Visa Applications Submitted Between 2010 and 2020
The pair submitted 54 fake H-1B visa applications over a 10-year period, sponsoring employees who didn’t exist, according to the federal attorney on the case.
Rather, the workers were lent to other organizations that paid almost $3 million in kickbacks to Innovate Solutions to pay for employee wages and salaries.
The H-1B federal program allows companies to bring in foreign workers for certain occupations in the US. It’s a vital resource for many American technology companies that bring in engineering and coding workers from overseas. Domestic workers often do not have the skills and interest in this type of work to fill the many positions that open up every year.
The H-1B program requires companies to complete an application for every new employee. They must detail and attest that the job exists, as well as how long it will be and the pay. The company also completes another petition and must attest to and provide the wages and geographic location of the work.
Sometimes, a worker and the company can provide a petition on behalf of another firm, which is called the end-client. That is where the visa worker would actually work.
Christeena and Punniakoti admitted to federal agents that they gave documentation that said the workers would work at Innovate Solutions or another end client firm.
However, the jobs at the company didn’t exist, federal agents say, and the employees that were supposedly working off-site never showed up anywhere.
The end clients that were in the H1-B visa applications never were in receipt of the workers or didn’t intend to have them at all.
Instead, federal documents state, the executives turned in visa applications for employees who would work for other companies that had the work for them and not the end clients listed in the visa applications.
With this scheme, the executives received a lot of illegal profits and gained an illicit advantage over many staffing companies.
The federal charges come a year after President Biden allowed a ban on H-1B visa applications to expire that was put into effect by former President Trump.
If Christeena and Punnikoti are convicted, they could receive five years in prison for conspiracy and 10 years for every count of fraud. They also may have to pay $250,000 each in fines for each federal charge.
Other Similar Silicon Valley Visa Fraud Cases in 2022
The above visa fraud case is similar to other recent cases involving Silicon Valley executives. In 2021, Namrata Patnaik, 42, and Kariki Parekh, 56, were accused of providing 85 fake H-1B visa applications related to their company PerfectVIPs.
Federal prosecutors alleged the pair gave the company an unfair advantage over competitors. And wages for the employees and profit for the firm were almost $7 million. The feds also allege that Patnaik also committed money laundering to make the $7 million look legal.
Federal agents claim the executives showed the visa workers as working for PerfectVIPs on in-house projects on site. But after the visa applications were approved, they made a pool of visa workers that would be put in jobs at other firms.
Both executives are facing a 10-year prison sentence for federal visa fraud if they are convicted. Patnaik could get 10 more years for money laundering. Each charge carries fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
North Carolina Attorney Recently Imprisoned For Visa Fraud
Federal visa fraud cases also have happened on the East Coast recently. Roydera Hackworth, 63, was sentenced to a year in federal prison in 2021 for visa fraud.
Hackworth was an attorney with a law office in Greensboro, North Carolina, but she was based in Wilmington.
In 2010, her North Carolina license to practice law was suspended for 48 months for commingling legal client funds in various trust accounts. She mismanaged the funds and didn’t keep accurate records of transactions.
During her license suspension period, she was accused of forging another attorney’s signature on immigration visa applications, which was investigated by the federal government. The board of immigration appeals suspended her law license in 2014, but she still practiced law and represented clients. This included submitting visa applications to the USCIS.
Homeland Security Investigations found that Hackworth was submitting visa applications under the name of another lawyer. The federal government also found she was pretending to be another lawyer and illegally submitted various documents related to immigration. She signed those documents under penalty of perjury.
In July 2021, she signed an affidavit stating that she was illegally practicing law when her law license was suspended and she pretended to be another attorney.
The federal government noted during her trial that her disregard of her suspension by the Board of Immigration Appeals damaged her clients and the US immigration system.