By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A top aide to Brooklyn congressman Major Owens has been the target of a six-month federal investigation into a scam in which money was alleged to have been taken illegally from immigrants, the Voice has learned.
An FBI unit that probes official corruption snagged Mario Jean-Toussaint, a Haitian immigrant and staff assistant on the congressman's payroll who doubled as a paralegal and "immigration consultant." Jean-Toussaint was arrested by special agent Elizabeth R. Morris, and no longer works for Owens. "He stopped coming to work, and was dropped," Owens told the Voice.
Suddenly, the case is reverberating with strong political overtones.
The fact that Owens is campaigning for reelection may have weighed heavily in his decision to cooperate with the office of U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter. Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Coffey, who is prosecuting the case, says that Owens himself, one of the city's longest-serving and most influential black politicians, was not a target of the probe.
Owens's cooperation, however, may not be enough to shield the eight-term congressman against attacks from political rivals. One victim, Geraldine Miles, told the Voice she felt that Owens tried to stop her from going public with the information, perhaps to take the focus off his office. She alleged that Owens had not followed through on an offer to, in her words, "personally take care of this embarrassing situation." She says she threatened to take her story to the media, but Owens's office already had alerted the FBI about her complaint.
"As far as I am concerned," Owens said, "a staff member was guilty of criminal conduct that is being prosecuted as a result of our recommendation of an investigation."
Jackie Ellis, Owens's chief of staff, emphasized: "After we found out what the charges were, we had to report it. The [allegations] would have been that we allowed him to do this knowingly."
Prosecutors, who considered charging Jean-Toussaint with extortion and attempted extortion, now have downgraded the charges as a result of a plea-bargain agreement. Jean-Toussaint's attorney, Richard D. Willstatter, says the ex-aide will plead guilty to violating a federal conflict-of-interest law, which bars congressional aides from accepting money from constituents in exchange for their services. "The government and Mr. Jean-Toussaint expect to reach a settlement of this case whereby he will plead guilty . . . to a misdemeanor," Willstatter explained. "He did not extort anyone."
Prosecutors now allege that Jean-Toussaint illegally accepted less than $1000 each from Miles, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, and another unidentified victim. Jean-Toussaint, who would have faced five years in prison if charged with a felony, could face up to a year on the lesser charge, says Willstatter.
But the original federal affidavit in support of an arrest warrant says it all. The affidavit claims that Jean-Toussaint extorted $1230 from Miles, who was seeking to qualify her daughter, Janelle Cadogan, for an amnesty program that allowed certain immigrants to remain in the U.S while awaiting approval for their green cardprovided they paid a "super fee" of $1000. Jean-Toussaint, claims the affidavit, never informed Janelle's mother, who has permanent residence status, that she had to be a U.S. citizen to successfully complete the application process.
Undocumented immigrants, like Janelle, were given until January 14 of this year to file for the so-called "rolling amnesty." Those who did not meet the deadline must travel to U.S. consulates abroad to file for permanent residence. Because of the tougher immigration law that Congress enacted in 1996, illegal immigrants who leave the country to refile could find themselves barred from returning for up to 10 years.
Geraldine Miles survived the bureaucratic torture often visited upon undocumented immigrants who are seeking to legalize their status. Five years after she received her green card, Miles, a 45-year-old resident counselor at Catholic Charities, applied for citizenship, hoping that it would be approved in time to spare her daughter the indignities she had suffered.
But Miles's papers became bogged down in a backlog of 2 million applications, and she began to fear that Janelle would be deported. Janelle had graduated from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in 1995. She planned to attend CUNY to pursue a double major in child psychology and computer science, but could not continue her education because of the strict new federal laws against undocumented immigrants.
"All my friends went off to college and are graduating next year," Janelle cried.
Then, an open door.
Last December, Miles heard an INS promotion about the $1000 "super fee" on black-owned radio station WLIB. Janelle, she thought, would not have to return to Trinidad after all. But Miles missed part of the ad that said the deal was only for foreign-born U.S. citizens who desired to have their children under 21 or spouses remain in the country while they normalize their status.
"Since [Miles] was not a U.S. citizen, [she] would not have been eligible for the 'super fee' program and had [her] application been submitted to INS it would have been rejected," according to the affidavit. (Immigration experts disagree on whether Miles has to be a citizen in order to apply.)
One day in December, Miles walked into Congressman Owens's office on Utica Avenue. She met with Mario Jean-Toussaint. Janelle, he regretted, would have to wait five years if she missed the January 14 deadline. Jean-Toussaint, according to the affidavit, said he would "take care of this situation . . . with INS" if she paid him $1130, which was legally required to process the application. Then Jean-Toussaint told Miles she had to cough up an additional $100 for a biographical form and $150 for his services.