Visa fraud scheme used cemetery plots to launder money

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Federal agencies have exposed a visa fraud scheme that involved a West Covina law firm and money laundering through the purchase of cemetery plots. The law firm is no more and its president has been sentenced to 10 months in prison.

An unusual employment visa fraud scheme used cemetery plot purchases to launder money. It's landed the president of a now-defunct Southland law firm behind bars. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Thursday that Joseph Wai-Man Wu, 53, will serve a 10-month prison term for his role in the scheme. His associate, attorney Kelly Einstein Darwin Giles, 49, awaits sentencing in January.

Wu - whom ICE described as former president of the East West Law Group of West Covina -pleaded guilty in August of last year to one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, one count of money laundering, and one count of obstruction of justice. Authorities arrested him and two others, including Giles, the firm's owner, and Wu's wife, May Yim-man Wu, three years ago. They were part of what ICE called in a news release "a lengthy employment visa fraud scheme where the illicit profits were used to purchase several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of vacant cemetery plots and grave monuments." From the ICE release:

In pleading guilty, Wu admitted that, from approximately 1996 to 2009, he and other members of the law practice set up nearly a dozen shell companies in order to file at least 137 fraudulent employment-based visa petitions for nearly 100 alien clients. In return for filing those fraudulent petitions, the clients paid Wu and his co-conspirators anywhere from $6,000 to $50,000. Many of the petitions were for H-1B visas, which the government reserves for foreign workers with specialized skills, such as accountants and information technology professionals.

 ICE reports that the people named in the visa applications didn't work for the law firm or for the phony companies. Giles pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to commit fraud and obstruction of justice. The federal agency says May Wu is a minor player in the scheme who's participating in a pretrial diversion program. 

The arrests followed a two-and-a-half-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal Department of Labor and  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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