Major Scandal

Aide to Brooklyn Congressman Owens is targeted in immigrant fraud scam

On December 19, Miles returned to the office and plunked down four blank money orders and $50 in cash toward his personal fee. Jean-Toussaint signed a handwritten note saying he had received the money "for immigration purpose [sic]" and that Miles owed him $100. In early January, after repeated unanswered calls to Jean-Toussaint, Miles went back to the office, where Jean-Toussaint handed over carbon copy receipts from the money orders, supposedly indicating that they had been paid to "Immigration & Naturalization Scvcs." In February, not having heard from Jean-Toussaint regarding the status of her application, Miles said she became suspicious and went to the check-cashing agency where she had bought the money orders, and asked them to trace the transaction.

Miles obtained copies of the $100 and $130 money orders, which, according to the affidavit, "indicated that the payees were not INS," as the carbon copies showed. The $100 money order had been made payable to Fleet Bank and purchased by a woman at a Brooklyn address where, according to the affidavit, employment records at Owens's office verified that Jean-Toussaint lived. The $130 money order was paid to a Peter Ramirez. Miles then stopped payment on the "super fee," which had been made out in money orders of $500 each.

She said the check cashier complained to Fred Price, a top aide to Owens, warning him, "This is fraud." On March 2, Miles said, she met with Owens and Price at Owens's office. Both reportedly expressed disgust over what Jean-Toussaint had done to her. Recalls Miles: "I told them, 'I didn't go to any back alley. I came to the congressman's office. If you misled me because you wanted to steal my money, it is not my fault.' " Miles said she added, "This is a case for the media."

Owens promptly assigned another aide to help Miles with her application. Over the next several days, she said the aide called and told her that he would secure U.S. citizenship for her, and that Janelle would receive her green card before July 27, when she would turn 21. After building up Miles's hopes, the aide stopped calling.

"When I called him, he said he couldn't do anything more for us because Mario Jean-Toussaint had been fired and the FBI was investigating," Miles recalled. "He told me Janelle would have to go back to Trinidad."

Miles soon received a visit from two FBI agents and an INS official. On March 9, she allowed the agents to record a phone conversation with Jean-Toussaint. According to the affidavit, Miles asked Jean-Toussaint to explain why the money orders were not made out to the INS. He couldn't provide a plausible answer.

"Jean-Toussaint stated that he had given his 'partner' Peter Ramirez the money orders along with ten other applications [and] Ramirez had mixed up the money orders and INS had been paid with travelers' checks," the document noted. "He also stated that Ramirez had not filed [Miles's] documents until late January." Jean-Toussaint, the affidavit added, promised to hand over copies of the travelers' checks to Miles on March 17. But he never did.

Following queries by the Voice, Miles claims that Owens's chief of staff Ellis contacted her and allegedly offered to use contacts in the INS to "speed up" her citizenship application. Ellis denies that Owens's office is doing any special favors for Miles. "We have sent over her paperwork to the INS," Ellis told the Voice.

Miles is not holding her breath. Her only remaining hope is that intensive lobbying by immigrant, business, and religious groups will revive the "super fee" program, which was ended last winter after a bruising battle led by House conservatives, who favor tighter immigration controls.

In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 1999 spending bill for the departments of justice, state, and commerce that would resuscitate the program, known as "245(i)," and make it permanent. It was passed by the Senate last month. The House lawmakers, who fought to terminate the program on grounds that it rewards lawbreakers and encourages illegal immigration, are vowing to block its return, and have passed their own spending bill.

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