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Two Silicon Valley executives charged with H-1B visa fraud

A pair of executives from a Silicon Valley information technology company appeared in court this week on charges of H-1B visa fraud allegedly committed over the course of a decade, federal prosecutors said.

Elangovan Punniakoti, 52, and Mary Christeena, 47, were each charged on March 31 with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and six counts of visa fraud. They appeared in federal court for the first time on Tuesday.

Punniakoti and Christeena were respectively CEO and President of Santa Clara County-based Innovate Solutions Inc., which was incorporated in 2008.

Between 2010 and 2020, the couple submitted 54 fraudulent H-1B visa applications, sponsoring workers for positions that did not exist, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.

Instead, the workers were, in effect, loaned out to other companies who paid more than $2.5 million in fees to Innovate Solutions to cover the costs of worker wages and salaries and a profit mark-up. .

The H-1B program allows employers to temporarily hire foreign workers for “specialty occupations” located in the United States and is a critical resource for American tech companies, which import much of their coding and engineering talent. .

The program requires employers to complete an application for the new hire, detailing and attesting to the existence and details of employment, duration and salary. The employer then completes another petition, again providing and certifying the salary and job location.

In some cases, a petitioner such as Innovate Solutions may submit a petition on behalf of another company, called an end customer, where the H-1B employee would work.

Punniakoti and Christeena reportedly submitted documents indicating that the workers would be employed at Innovate Solutions or off-site at end-client companies.

But internal jobs at Innovate Solutions did not exist, prosecutors said, and workers supposed to work offsite never made it to the other companies.

“The corporate end customers listed in Innovate Solutions’ H-1B applications never received the proposed H-1B workers or never intended to receive these H-1B workers,” federal prosecutors said. in the indictment.

Instead, according to the indictment, Punniakoti and Christeena submitted applications for H-1B workers who would be placed with other employers who had work for them, not with the end customers in the applications. .

“Through this scheme, the defendants reaped profits and gained an unfair advantage over the investment firms,” ​​prosecutors said.

The charges come a year after President Biden authorized the expiration of an H-1B visa ban, put in place by then-President Trump at the start of the pandemic.

If convicted, Punniakoti and Christeena face five years in prison for conspiracy and 10-year sentences for each count of fraud, in addition to a $250,000 fine for each charge.

Los Angeles Times

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