Two Santa Clara County Executives Charged With “Specialty Occupation” Visa Fraud
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of California
Defendants Alleged To Have Submitted Approximately 54 Fraudulent H-1B Visa Applications
SAN JOSE – Elangovan Punniakoti and Mary Christeena appeared in federal court today to face an indictment charging them with visa fraud and conspiracy to commit visa fraud, announced United States Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds, U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), San Francisco Field Office, Special Agent in Charge William Chang, and Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Tatum King.
According to the indictment, Innovate Solutions, Inc. in Santa Clara County was incorporated in 2008 as an information technology services company. Punniakoti, 52, a resident of Cupertino, acted as CEO of Innovate Solutions. Christeena, 47, also a resident of Cupertino, served as the company’s president.
The indictment charges that from 2010 through May 2020, Punniakoti and Christeena repeatedly submitted fraudulent H-1B visa applications for foreign workers sponsored by Innovate Solutions. H-1B visas are issued through the United States government’s H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers program. With an H-1B visa, a sponsoring employer can employ a foreign worker in the United States on a temporary, nonimmigrant basis in a “specialty occupation.” A specialty occupation requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of specialized knowledge and requires the employee to have a bachelor's degree or its equivalent in the relevant specialty. Each employer seeking to obtain an H-1B visa to employ a nonimmigrant foreign worker is required to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Labor that, among other things, attests to labor conditions and describes the existence, duration, and wages of the temporary job. A subsequent petition requires, among other information, biographical data of the proposed foreign worker and the address where the proposed foreign worker will be working for the sponsoring employer.
The indictment charges that from 2010 through May 2020, Punniakoti and Christeena submitted approximately 54 fraudulent H-1B visa applications for temporary nonimmigrant workers sponsored by Innovate Solutions. Each application required representations made under penalty of perjury as to the name, location, terms, and existence of the employment position for the sponsored nonimmigrant worker. Punniakoti and Christeena submitted, or caused to be submitted, statements in the application process that the foreign workers would be working offsite at specific end-client companies. The indictment charges that the identified end-client companies either never received the proposed foreign workers or never intended to receive those workers. The indictment also charges that Punniakoti and Christeena submitted, or caused to be submitted, statements that a foreign worker would be working on an internal project for Innovate Solutions despite knowing that no such project existed.
Once the applications were approved, Punniakoti and Christeena created a pool of H-1B workers that were placed at employment positions with other employers that had actual work, not with the identified end-clients. The practice provided Innovate Solutions with an unfair and illegal advantage over employment-staffing firms.
During the period of Punniakoti’s and Christeena’s conspiracy, the indictment alleges, the other employers paid fees of more than $2.5 million to Innovate Solutions to cover the cost of the H-1B workers’ wages and salaries as well as a profit markup for Innovate Solutions.
Punniakoti and Christeena made their initial appearances in San Jose federal court today before United States Magistrate Judge Virginia K. DeMarchi. A further court appearance is scheduled on July 25, 2022, before United States District Judge Edward J. Davila, who sits in San Jose. Both defendants were released.
The federal indictment charges both Punniakoti and Christeena with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and six counts of visa fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1546(a) and 2. The maximum statutory imprisonment sentence for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 is 5 years in prison. The maximum statutory imprisonment sentence for each violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1546(a) is 10 years. Each of the charged statutes carry a maximum statutory fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss amount. However, any sentence following a conviction would be imposed by a court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
The charges contained in the criminal indictment are only allegations. As in any criminal case, these defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
Assistant United States Attorney Sarah Griswold is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Lynette Dixon. The prosecution was the result of an investigation led by the DSS representative to the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force (DBFTF), overseen by Homeland Security Investigations. The DBFTF is a multi-agency task force that coordinates investigations into fraudulent immigration documents. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Office of Fraud Detection and National Security also assisted with the investigation.
Updated April 12, 2022