Indictment claims 300 immigrants falsely received documents - Officials say number of people involved makes staffing firm's case "significant."
(Note: These are illegal invaders, not "immigrants," and one of the two ringleaders is also in America ILLEGALLY. "Guest workers" they are NOT.)
February 10, 2006
The Springfield News-Leader
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Branson, Missouri - The federal grand jury indictment this week of two Ozarks residents for falsifying information on work visa applications has left area employers concerned.
The indictment alleges that the pair fraudulently obtained work visas for 300 workers. Immigration officials, commenting only on the magnitude of the case, termed it "very significant."
Monica Lopez, 24, and her alleged employer, Serguei Choukline, 47, were named as co-defendants in the indictment filed in federal court in Springfield.
Beginning in 2002, they operated under business names Midwest Hotel Management Corp. and AAA Hotel Services, and provided housekeeping personnel, restaurant staff and other service workers to employers in the Branson and Springfield area, states the indictment.
The indictment, filed after 15 months of investigation, alleges that through the use of fraudulently obtained foreign labor, Midwest received approximately $1.5 million.
Choukline "is presumed innocent," said John Kizer, the Springfield attorney who is defending him. "This is not something we're just going to roll over on. ... In my opinion, it's not near as big a case as they tried to make it out to be."
But Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dallas, said a case that potentially involves 300 illegal immigrants is big. Rusnok was not commenting on this case in particular, but on such a case in general.
"That's very significant," Rusnok said. "Usually it's 10 or 20 or 40. You won't find 300 aliens too often."
Furthermore, this case deals with fraudulent documents, one of the more common problems with which immigration enforcement officials are faced.
Fake documents "are becoming very pervasive throughout the country," Rusnok said. Employers are expected to verify that potential employees are legally eligible to work, but "the employers aren't expected to be fraudulent document experts."
Don Ledford, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, said none of the employers faces charges nor were any immigrants deported or prosecuted except Lopez.
The investigation identified 10 businesses that conducted business with the service operated by Choukline and Lopez.
In a statement to investigators, Lopez said she arrived in Branson in 2000 with a visitor visa and later met Choukline, who recruited her to work for his company knowing she was not authorized to be employed.
In the Branson area, hotels, restaurants and theme parks commonly employ immigrant labor to fill jobs during the peak summer and fall seasons.
Ross Summers, director of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said no tally is kept of how many are employed, but in 2001, at least eight area hotels contracted with various employment agencies to provide an estimated 100 workers from Jamaica, England, Mexico, Russia, the Czech Republic and other countries.
In Springfield, where college students pad the local labor market, finding domestic labor is typically not a problem, said Pam Prentice, president of the Springfield Hotel-Motel Association and general manager of the Sleep Inn.
"To my knowledge there's none of that going on here," Prentice said.
But Prentice added that Branson has a smaller work force and a more seasonal industry than Springfield.
Chris Lucci, co-owner with Jim D. Morris of four Branson hotels, said he had not worked with Midwest, but expects for the fifth year to employ about 18 foreign workers, most from Jamaica.
"We go through a whole process with the Department of Immigration to bring in workers," Lucci said. "They look at your ability to attract workers, the ads we placed in newspapers and what response has been. It takes months to get the permits."
Lucci said they use a law firm that specializes in the process.
"There are specific rules on what you pay, and we have to provide housing as well as transportation for them to the grocery store, pharmacies, whatever they need," Lucci said.
They always fall short on the number of local employees they can find, said Lucci. In 2005, Taney County's summer work force was about 23,000 with unemployment of 5.4 percent.
The workers first apply with the Jamaica Central Labor Organization where they're placed on a waiting list, Lucci said.
They are good employees, and many return every year, he said. Most speak English and have experience in Jamaica's tourism industry. Most are women in their 30s and 40s who send money home to their families.
Steve Marshall, manager of the Chateau on the Lake, said they traditionally employ about two dozen foreign workers, also usually from Jamaica.
The hotel obtained some employees through Midwest Hotel Management Corp. during about three years and had no hint anything was amiss, Marshall said.
"Any time you contract through a company, we wouldn't know even if they were here illegally," Marshall said.
Last fall, Chateau personnel assisted the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the investigation into Lopez and Choukline.
Lopez, a Mexican citizen, and Choukline, a Russian citizen who lives legally in Springfield, are charged with falsifying information about Lopez's employment history on a work visa application, mailing that application and fraudulently obtaining a visa.
According to court documents, the false statements included a fictitious corporate office in Branson and a false work history for Lopez.
Lopez received four Missouri driver's licenses between 2000 and 2004 under two different names, according to the indictment.
Business was conducted using e-mail, and no physical office was located, the indictment states.
Lopez is in federal custody, but Ledford said he didn't know where she was being held.
Choukline was released in lieu of $50,000 bond after a federal complaint was filed, but may be arrested following the indictment, Ledford said.
Copyright 2006, The Springfield News-Leader.