Three attorneys sentenced to prison in asylum scheme
By Denny Walsh
The Sacramento Bee, September 26, 2010
In a grueling seven-hour hearing Friday in Sacramento federal court, three attorneys were sentenced to prison for engineering a scheme that gained scores of immigrants asylum in the United States based on false documents.
Jagprit Singh Sekhon, 39, a partner with his brother in a now-defunct Sacramento firm that specialized in immigration law, was sentenced to nine years.
Jagdip Singh Sekhon, 42, who ran the San Francisco office of Sekhon & Sekhon, was sentenced to five years.
Manjit Kaur Rai, 33, an associate in the firm, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years.
U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ordered the Sekhons taken into custody. He directed Rai to surrender Oct. 15, giving her time to arrange a move of her 5-year-old son to Canada, where he will live with her parents.
Luciana Harmath, 29, who worked for the firm as a Romanian interpreter, was sentenced in June to four months in prison.
The sentencing of Romanian interpreter Iosif Caza, 43, was not completed and will resume Monday.
All five defendants were found guilty by a jury on June 25, 2009, at the conclusion of a 3 1/2-month trial.
Damrell aimed his harshest criticism Friday at Jagprit Sekhon, saying he apparently let greed override good judgment.
Sekhon, in turn, told the judge he is solely responsible for preparing the asylum applications and accompanying written narratives that were found to be false.
He said he did not discuss what he was doing with his brother. Rai, who was just out of law school, simply did what he told her to do, Sekhon said.
'I wish to hell he had testified to that to the jury,' Rai's lawyer, Clyde Blackmon, told the judge. 'We might have a very different situation here.'
Damrell asked Jagdip Sekhon why he let the corrupt practice take hold in his firm, but Sekhon did not want to talk about it. The judge pressed him, and he reluctantly replied, 'I was not prepared to do anything different at the time. It gets very complicated when it comes to family.'
All five were convicted on charges related to a long-running conspiracy to defraud U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, by filing dozens of fabricated claims that the asylum applicants had been beaten, raped, tortured and harassed in their homelands because of their ethnicity, religion or politics.
Jagprit Sekhon, Caza, Rai and Harmath were also found guilty of a separate conspiracy to submit a false asylum claim and of several fraud and false statement counts relating to specific asylum claims.
Rai and Harmath are not U.S. citizens and face deportation when they get out of prison.
Damrell made a formal finding that the Sekhons and Caza derived $690,590 in fees from the bogus applications.
Jagprit Sekhon has forfeited $170,000 and Caza $40,000. Jagdip Sekhon contested the forfeiture amount and the issue was tried before Damrell without a jury in seven sessions during the past 15 months.
The judge also found that 164 false documents are attributable to the conspiracy as it relates to the three lawyers. He found that 141 false documents can be linked to Caza. More than 100 false documents opens the door for a significant sentence enhancement.
Damrell disallowed hundreds of documents prosecutors insist were, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Camil Skipper said Friday, 'made up out of whole cloth.' The judge decried the fact that early on in the prosecution the government was 'throwing around' numbers like 600 to 700 Sekhon clients were unlawfully granted asylum and the law firm raked in more than $2 million in ill-gotten fees.
'That may all be true, but there's no proof,' the judge said. 'There's been a lot of hyperbole.' He pointed out the inflated numbers were adopted by the probation officer and they wound up in his pre-sentence reports to the judge.
Damrell noted the figures were based on estimates by the government's lead investigator, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Carol Webster.
'I'm sure the agent did what she thought was right,' he said. 'I don't doubt her integrity. 'But, for purposes of sentencing, there must be clear and convincing evidence.'
As they did at the trial, the defense lawyers in sentencing papers attacked the case as being built on Webster's inferences and speculation.
'Through the granting of asylum, this nation offers its protection to victims of ethnic, religious and political persecution from across the world,' said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner on Friday. 'These defendants made a living out of cynically abusing and subverting the asylum process. That three of them were licensed attorneys, officers of the court who are supposed to uphold the integrity of the process, is particularly offensive.'
He said immigration officials are reviewing hundreds of asylum cases that emanated from the Sekhon firm to determine if they will be reopened. The firm's clients were primarily from India and Romania. It also filed claims on behalf of Fijian and Nepali nationals.