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2 accused in teacher smuggling plead guilty

Two key figures in a white-collar smuggling scheme to import Filipino teachers to Texas schools pleaded guilty this week in federal court in El Paso to conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Noel Cedro Tolentino and his mother, Florita Cedro Tolentino, were accused of procuring work visas for teachers for jobs that were not confirmed and that often did not materialize.

They and Noel Tolentino's wife, Angelica Tolentino, had been indicted on about 40 counts, including conspiracy to smuggle aliens, visa fraud and money laundering. Noel and Florita Tolentino pleaded guilty Jan. 2 to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in exchange for the dismissal of all the other charges.

Plea documents showed they admitted to "failing to tell (the U.S. government) the alien teachers did not have confirmed employment."

They face up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines at their sentencing, scheduled for March. It wasn't clear Friday what happened to the case against Angelica Tolentino.

Manuel Barraza, one of Florita Tolentino's lawyers, declined to comment. The other lawyers could not be reached for comment Friday.

The case went to trial a year ago, but U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone declared a mistrial at the end of nearly two months of hearings because two jurors said they read a newspaper article about the proceedings. A new trial was supposed to start Friday.

During the trial, prosecutors described the alleged fraud that involved school officials from several Texas school districts, including Socorro, Ysleta, Canutillo and El Paso school districts.

Prosecutors said the Tolentinos would take Texas school administrators on junkets to the Philippines, all-expense-paid trips, during which the school administrators were expected to interview teachers and sign a certain number of letters of intent to hire. The letters were then used by the Tolentinos' company, OMNI Consortium of Houston, to file I-129 petitions for H-1B work visas in the U.S.

Using the visas, Filipino teachers, who had paid OMNI a fee as high as $10,000, according to the indictment, emigrated to the U.S.

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, the Tolentinos continued the process. They allegedly shopped the teachers around to different schools from the ones the visas were obtained for, which is illegal.

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

Some El Paso school officials were also charged in the case.

Mario Aguilar, former superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to report gifts to a public official and was sentenced to one year of probation. Raye Lokey, former Ysleta Independent School District associate superintendent for human resources, was sentenced to six months of probation for aiding illegal entry.

As part of the their plea, the Tolentinos also agreed to forfeit assets, including a 1996 Mercedes Benz, a 1999 BMW, real estate properties in Houston and McAllen, and money from five bank accounts.


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