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US judge declares mistrial on 'smuggling' of RP teachers case in Texas


A federal judge in El Paso, Texas declared a mistrial on Monday in the case against three Filipinos in Houston accused of “smuggling" teachers from the Philippines after two jurors admitted to reading a newspaper article about the proceedings. US District Judge Kathleen Cardone has yet to set a new date for the trial of Noel Cedro Tolentino, his wife, Angelica Tolentino, and his mother, Florita Tolentino, all officers of OMNI Consortium, who were indicted on about 40 counts of criminal offenses including conspiracy to smuggle aliens, visa fraud and money laundering, Texas-based El Paso Times reported in its online edition Tuesday. The case has been on trial for almost two months. El Paso Times came out two weeks ago with an article about the termination of the prosecution’s evidence against the Tolentinos. Recruited teachers from the Philippines who ended up having no jobs in Texas appeared to testify against the Tolentinos. The Texan newspaper said the article in question stated that officials at El Paso school districts had pleaded guilty last year in the case. Although that information had been reported before, it hadn't come up in trial and defense attorneys said it was prejudicial to their clients. The jurors had been instructed not to read newspaper articles or watch televised news segments about the case. The newspaper said the Tolentinos were allegedly involved in “white-collar smuggling scheme" to import Filipino teachers to Texas school districts. It said the Tolentinos, through OMNI Consortium based in Houston, have recruited 273 teachers from the Philippines, but only fewer than 100 of them actually had jobs waiting for them in Texas. The jury on the case was supposed to start hearing the evidence and testimonies of the Tolentinos on Monday. The prosecution rested its case two weeks ago after more than a month of testimony in the case against officials from the OMNI Consortium, the Tolentinos. El Paso Times reported that officials from several El Paso school districts who hired some Filipino teachers are key players in the trial. The government's case against the Tolentinos includes a series of alleged junkets to the Philippines, all-expenses-paid trips during which school administrators were expected to offer Filipino candidates teaching jobs in Texas. The Tolentinos stand trial for fraud for making it appear that Filipino teachers were legally hired by Texas school districts. The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines issued visas for jobs that did not exist. The teachers said they did not know they would end up coming to the United States illegally. The Tolentinos charged each teacher about $10,000. Many of their recruits had to take on loans to put up the money. According to the El Paso Times report, government accused the Tolentinos of bribing Texas school district officials with trips to the Philippines in exchange for commitments to hire Filipino teachers. Last week, Ron Ederer, the lawyer for Noel Tolentino, took offense with the government's assertion that the trips were bribes. "It's like saying I'm going to give you a free trip to Juárez, or worse. To consider this a bribe is a real stretch," he said. "It's almost embarrassing to be arguing these things." Last year, Mario Aguilar, former superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to report gifts, including a trip to China within the trip to the Philippines, to a public official and was sentenced to one year of probation. Aguilar's wife, Vista Del Sol Elementary School Principal Magdalena Aguilar, has reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office in which charges will be dismissed against her next month in the Filipino teachers immigration fraud case, her lawyer Miguel Torres said. Aguilar did not plead guilty to any crimes, nor was she found guilty in the matter. Raye Lokey, former Ysleta Independent School District associate superintendent for human resources, was sentenced to six months of probation for aiding illegal entry. The defense contends the trips to the Philippines were working trips. But prosecutor Bill Lewis said a quid pro quo was involved. SISD officials who went on the trip testified that there was an understanding that each had to sign 10 letters of intent to hire during the trip. Lewis said the letters were used by OMNI to file I-129 petitions for H-1B work visas in the United States, El Paso Times reported. But school districts then scaled down their request for teachers. For example, the Brownsville Independent School 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, Tolentino continued the process. When the Brownsville teachers arrived in the United States, Noel Tolentino took them to job fairs in El Paso, where some of them found employment. OMNI provided teachers for Socorro, Ysleta, Canutillo and El Paso independent school districts. The Tolentinos assert that the Filipino teachers they "imported" did not come to the US illegally. -GMANews.TV
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