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An
alleged white-collar smuggling scheme to import Filipino teachers to
Texas school districts was laid out in federal court in El Paso this
week.

The prosecution rested this week after more than a month of
testimony in the case against officials from the OMNI Consortium based
in Houston — Noel Cedro Tolentino; his wife, Angelica Tolentino; and
his mother, Florita Tolentino. The three were indicted on about 40
counts including conspiracy to smuggle aliens, visa fraud and money
laundering.

Officials from several El Paso school districts who hired some Filipino teachers are key players in the trial.

The jury is off for spring break and is scheduled to return March 19 to hear the defense’s case.

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.

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, was
also sentenced to one year of probation for receiving a gift.

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.

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.

“The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines issued visas for jobs that did not exist. É That’s fraud,” Lewis said.

The teachers did not know they would end up coming to the United States illegally, Lewis said.

By then they had taken loans to pay the fees OMNI was charging them, about $10,000 a person, according to the indictment.

“Had they known, they would have not come into the United States. Had they known, they wouldn’t have taken loans,” Lewis said.

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 U.S. attorney’s office has said
that 273 Filipino teachers were brought to the United States during
2002-04 and that fewer than 100 actually had jobs waiting for them.

Noel Tolentino shook his head during some of the prosecutor’s statements and talked animatedly to his lawyer.

Chris Antcliff, the lawyer for Angelica Tolentino, said his client was innocent.

“I do not believe the government established that any teacher came to the U.S. illegally,” Antcliff said.

Louie Gilot may be reached at lgilot@elpasotimes.com; 546-6131.