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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.
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.