23 July 2004 – LAWFUEL – Read PRESS RELEASES for today’s law announcements
Marcos Daniel Jiménez, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida; Timothy Muris, Chairman, Federal Trade Commission; Jim Belz, Postal Inspector in Charge, United States Postal Inspector Service; and Michael S. Clemens, Acting Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, announced today the favorable resolutions of the criminal and civil prosecutions of John Romano and his wife, Hodal Nofal, for their participation in a scheme to defraud prospective immigrants interested in securing Diversity Visas (“DV”). Today, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, United States District Court Judge James I. Cohn sentenced Romano, who had pleaded guilty to a one-count Information charging him with mail fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, 1341, to a term of thirty-seven (37) months in prison and two (2) years of supervised release. Romano’s sentence follows a six (6) month prison term imposed on Nofal, who was charged in a separate Information with, and pleaded guilty to, obstructing the United States mail, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1701. The FTC, proceeding in conjunction with the criminal prosecution, filed a civil action against the defendants that also was resolved favorably.
“This case signals that immigration scam artists will be pursued and shut down. The Southern District of Florida is closed for immigration fraud,” said United States Attorney Marcos Daniel Jiménez. “I am proud that our Office worked effectively with the FTC to stop the defendants’ illegal activities and protect the rights of potential immigrants.”
“This case is a red light for fraudulent green card operators,” said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris, “and an excellent example of the effectiveness of enforcement partnerships to stop scam artists. We want potential immigrants to know that the federal government is here to protect their rights.”
The DV program was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 for the stated purpose of encouraging ethnic diversity in the American population. Each year, the State Department accepts applications for the 50,000 DVs from persons with at least a high school education or two years of work experience in a trade or profession certified by the Department of Labor, who were born in countries with low rates of migration to the United States. From millions of qualifying applicants, the State Department randomly selects, as in a lottery, approximately 90,000 “winners,” to whom it sends invitations to apply for the DV at the consular office closest to them. At the consular offices, about 45% of the “winners” typically fail to appear at appointed times, meet the minimum educational or birthplace requirements, supply required medical information, complete other paperwork correctly or in time, and/or satisfy the consulate of their desirability. The State Department issues DVs to qualifying “winners” on a first-come, first served basis until the requisite 50,000 visas are issued.
Beginning in January, 2001 and continuing through August, 2003, Romano served as the president and director of Global Web Solutions, Inc., which operated out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, as “USA Immigration Services” (“GWS” or “USAIS”). Nofal served as USAIS’s treasurer, director, and registered agent. USAIS promoted itself as providing to consumers, over the internet, various immigration services. Romano falsely represented to prospective immigrants that he would ensure that consumers’ applications would meet registration guidelines and be included in the DV lottery program. Contrary to his representations, Romano did not ensure that consumers’ applications satisfied the guidelines. He, among other things, failed to correct deficiencies in applications, such as missing photographs and incorrect signatures. Moreover, knowing that potential immigrants were ineligible for the DV lottery program, Romano took money from them and submitted their ineligible applications.
In October 2003, the United States Attorney’s Office (the “USAO”) filed a criminal complaint against Romano and Nofal in Fort Lauderdale. Proceeding in conjunction with the USAO, the FTC filed a civil action against GWS, Romano, and Nofal in Washington, D.C. In both proceedings, the defendants were alleged to have used web addresses, metatags, business names, mailing addresses, and Internet advertising to make it appear that USAIS was an agency of the United States government, as well as defrauding potential immigrants interested in securing a DV.
In connection with their plea agreements, the defendants agreed to forfeit $1.25 million in proceeds from the sale of their Ft. Lauderdale residence/business site; three Bank of America accounts holding in excess of $720,000, which were frozen by the FTC; the sum of $210,476.45 held by three USAIS credit card companies; a 2004 Jaguar; $14,511.40 in cash; home furnishings and artwork, jewelry and a Rolex worth approximately $36,000, collectively; American Express travelers checks valued at $1,620.00; United States Postal money orders valued at $3,770.00; and Western Union money orders valued at $830.00. The forfeited proceeds will be used by the FTC for purposes of restitution for the victims of the scheme.
As part of the settlement of the FTC civil action, GWS and the defendants must post a $5 million bond before marketing services related to government-issued travel or residency documents and pay approximately $2.2 million in consumer redress. The FTC settlement also prohibits Romano and Nofal from billing or attempting to collect payment for any item, product, good, or service represented to assist consumers in applying for the DV lottery program, from assisting others in violating the law, and from selling or using their customer lists.
Mr. Jiménez commended the cooperative efforts of the FTC, as well as the investigative efforts of the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The criminal case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Neil Karadbil.