WASHINGTON – Two individuals pleaded guilty today for their participation in a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Video Relay Service (VRS) program, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division and James W. McJunkin, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
Ellen Thompson, 44, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano in Trenton, N.J., to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Wanda Hutchinson, 36, pleaded guilty before Judge Pisano to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Thompson and Hutchinson were indicted in the fall of 2009, along with others alleged to have been involved in the criminal conspiracy. The defendants and their co-conspirators are alleged to have caused the FCC to pay millions of dollars in fraudulent reimbursements.
According to court documents, Thompson was the chief operating officer for Deaf Studio 29, Verson Studio and Deaf News Network, California corporations that contracted with a certified VRS provider company to use the company’s VRS service. Hutchinson was a call center manager for Innovative Communication Services for the Deaf Corporation (ICSD), a company that operated VRS call centers in Florida. Thompson and Hutchinson both conspired with others to generate illegitimate VRS call minutes for reimbursement by the FCC.
According to the indictment, VRS is an online video translation service that allows people with hearing disabilities to communicate with hearing individuals through the use of interpreters and web cameras. A person with a hearing disability who wants to communicate with a hearing person can do so by contacting a VRS provider through an audio and video Internet connection. The VRS provider, in turn, employs a video interpreter to view and interpret the hearing disabled person’s signed conversation and relay the signed conversation orally to a hearing person. VRS is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers from telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to the VRS user.
On Jan. 6, 2011, Marc Velasquez, the founder and owner of Deaf Studio 29, Verson Studio and Deaf News Network, pleaded guilty for his role in the conspiracy. On March 9, 2010, Yosbel Buscaron and Lazaro Fernandez, the co-owners of ICSD, pleaded guilty for their roles in the conspiracy. Jessica Bacallao, an ICSD call center manager, pleaded guilty on Oct. 28, 2010.
Thompson and Hutchinson are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6, 2011. Both defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and mandatory restitution and forfeiture.
This case was prosecuted by Deputy Chief Hank Bond Walther and current and former Trial Attorneys Robert Zink and Brigham Cannon of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FCC Office of Inspector General.