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Pinoys plead guilty to 'smuggling' of RP teachers to Texas

Two Filipinos facing trial in Texas on a white-collar smuggling scheme to import Filipino teachers have pleaded guilty before a federal court in El Paso to conspiracy to defraud the US government. Noel Tolentino and his mother, Florita Cedro Tolentino, face up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines at their sentencing tentatively set in March, El Paso Times reported over the weekend. The Tolentinos entered their guilty plea on January 2, two days before their re-trial on 40 counts of offenses, including conspiracy to smuggle aliens, visa fraud and money laundering, was supposed to begin. The plea on the conspiracy charge was in exchange for the dropping of all other charges leveled against them. They also agreed to forfeit assets, including a 1996 Mercedes Benz, a 1999 BMW, real estate properties in Houston and McAllen, and money from five bank accounts. False promises In October 2004, US federal authorities said they have uncovered a scheme to lure Filipino teachers to the United States with false promises of jobs in Texas school districts, charging five people with conspiracy to commit alien smuggling and fraud. Two former West Texas public school administrators and an elementary school principal also face charges that they sponsored work visas for dozens of the teachers in exchange for free trips to Asia. Earlier, Mario Aguilar, former superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to report gifts to a public official and was sentenced to one year of probation. Aguilar and his wife, Magdalena, an elementary school principal in the district, were charged with conspiracy to commit interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. Raye Lokey, former Ysleta Independent School District associate superintendent for human resources, was sentenced to six months of probation for aiding illegal entry. The Aguilars and Lokey were freed on $25,000 bond each. The Tolentinos and their company, Omni Consortium, were accused of persuading the Filipino teachers to pay them $10,000 each, promising them well-paying teaching jobs in the United States. The teachers also were told they would receive permanent residency status and could bring their families with them. Omni took money from 273 Filipino teachers since 2002, but fewer than 100 ever received positions with school districts, Assistant US Attorney Brandy Gardes said. The immigrant teachers were housed in groups of 10 to 15 in unfurnished properties, and most had to sleep on the floor or on mattresses, according to court documents. The Tolentinos told the teachers they would be deported if they complained about not having jobs or tried to seek employment on their own. El Paso Times said plea documents showed the Tolentinos admitted to "failing to tell (the US government) the alien teachers did not have confirmed employment." Mistrial The case went to trial a year ago, but US District Judge Kathleen Cardone declared a mistrial at the end of nearly two months of hearings because two jurors said they read a newspaper article about the proceedings. During the trial, prosecutors described the alleged fraud that involved school officials from several Texas school districts, including Socorro, Ysleta, Canutillo and El Paso school districts. Prosecutors said the Tolentinos would take Texas school administrators on junkets to the Philippines, all-expense-paid trips, during which the school administrators were expected to interview teachers and sign a certain number of letters of intent to hire. The letters were then used by the Tolentinos' company, OMNI Consortium of Houston, to file I-129 petitions for H-1B work visas in the US, El Paso Times reported. By the time the teachers arrived in the US, the school districts have scaled down their request for teachers. Brownsville Independent School, for instance, originally wanted to hire 55 teachers but later said it needed only 19. The government said that instead of canceling the H-1B application for the unwanted 36 teachers, the Tolentinos continued the process. They allegedly shopped the teachers around to different schools from the ones the visas were obtained for, which is illegal. - GMANews.TV