United States Attorney Anne M. Tompkins
Western District of North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr. sentenced a Charlotte businessman today to serve 48 months in prison for worker visa fraud and related offenses, announced Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Phani Raju Bhima Raju, 42, an Indian National residing in Charlotte, pleaded guilty in March 2013 to federal charges ranging from conspiracy to violate U.S. laws by filing fraudulent immigration documents to money laundering conspiracy, for his participation in a fraudulent scheme to obtain false H-1B immigration visas for foreign workers. The H-1B visa program allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in designated specialty occupations. In addition to the prison term, Raju will serve one year under court supervision and is subject to deportation from the United States.
Brock D. Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Georgia and the Carolinas and Richard L. Walker, Special Agent in Charge for the Atlanta, Georgia Region of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General (DOL-OIG), Office of Racketeering and Fraud Investigations join U.S. Attorney Tompkins in making today’s announcement.
According to filed court documents and today’s sentencing hearing, from 2006 to November 2012, Raju conspired with Sarma G. M. Pingali, 64, and Bubala Elangovan, 33, both of Charlotte, to carry out a fraudulent scheme by submitting materially false documents to obtain H-1B immigration visas for foreign nationals seeking employment in the U.S. During the relevant time, Raju was the president of iFuturistics, a Delaware company headquartered in Pineville, N.C. Court records show that Raju and his conspirators falsely represented to the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) that iFuturistics was hiring H-1B visa holders to work directly for the company. Contrary to statements made on the submitted forms, court records show that once the applicants who were granted H-1B visas arrived in the U.S., they were assigned to work with various companies throughout the country. In fact, as court records show, iFuturistics had entered into lucrative contracts with staffing agencies prior to submitting the fraudulent visa applications. Court documents show that as a result of Raju’s illegal visa scheme iFuturistics received $13.2 million as payment from staffing companies in the U.S.
According to court documents and statements made in court, Raju admitted that in addition to submitting false applications, he and his conspirators engaged in an illegal scheme to recruit, solicit, entice and hire individuals outside the U.S. to apply for H-1B visas and to obtain work in the U.S. Court records show that Raju gave the H-1B visa applicants a “cheat sheet” of questions and answers to assist them during their interview process to obtain the H-1B visas.
Court records indicate that, once the H-1B visa workers were in the U.S., Raju at times failed to find them employment. On those occasions, court records indicate, these workers were “benched” in the U.S. while waiting for another job assignment, and during that time, and contrary to the salary claims made in the application forms, these workers received little or no pay from iFuturistics. On one occasion, court documents show, a foreign national H-1B visa holder had paid $2,500 to iFuturistics as a security deposit for processing her H-1B visa. According to the contract between iFuturistics and the employee, the employee was promised an annual salary of $60,000 and had agreed to the company’s request to market her services for employment throughout the U.S. In the end, iFuturistics never provided the worker with any work assignments and failed to pay her any wages, court records show.
Filed documents also indicate that during a scheduled inspection visit of the company’s Pineville offices in November 2009, Raju and his conspirators attempted to hide their fraudulent activities from law enforcement and immigration agents. In anticipation of the visit, court documents show that Raju and his conspirators had set up work stations, moved in furniture and recruited several persons to pretend to be iFuturistics workers for the duration of the inspection visit, when, in fact, the office space prior to the site visit had been empty and unoccupied. When law enforcement and immigration agents returned to the company’s offices a month after the site visit, the office space was dark and unoccupied, as it had been prior to the planned inspection.
Raju has been in federal custody since December 2012 and will be transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons upon designation of a federal facility. All federal sentences are served without the possibility of parole.
Pingali and Elangovan each pleaded guilty to worker visa fraud and related offenses and face prison terms ranging from five to 10 years and fines of $250,000 per charged offense. The defendants are currently on bond and await sentencing.
The investigation is handled by ICE-HSI and DOL-OIG. The prosecution is handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Smith of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte.