Immigration fraud profits used to buy grave sites

A Culver City lawyer convicted of immigration fraud for his role in a novel scheme to buy cemetery plots with laundered profits generated by fraudulent visa petitions lost his license in December. KELLY EINSTEIN DARWIN GILES [#144113] was placed on interim suspension Dec. 10, 2012, and faces possible summary disbarment because his crimes were felonies involving moral turpitude.

Giles pleaded guilty Sept. 19, 2012, to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and witness tampering. As part of the State Bar’s discipline, he was ordered to comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court.

The sole attorney and owner of the now-defunct East West Law Group of West Covina, Giles, 49, was arrested in 2009 with the president of the firm, Joseph Wai-Man Wu, and Wu’s wife, May Yim-man Wu. The three were part of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called “a lengthy employment visa fraud scheme where the illicit profits were used to purchase several hundred thousand dollars worth of vacant cemetery plots and grave monuments.”

Federal agents accused the trio of setting up nearly a dozen shell companies to file fraudulent employment visa petitions on behalf of their clients. The petitions cost between $6,000 and $50,000 each and were for H-1B visas, reserved for foreign workers with specialized skills, such as accountants and information technology professionals. The illicit profits were then used to buy cemetery plots that funeral professionals say appreciate at a rate of up to 10 percent per year and are less susceptible to economic downturns than other types of real estate.

“Our agents encounter a lot of unusual money laundering schemes, but this is the first time we’ve come across a case where the suspects sought to bury their profits by buying cemetery plots,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “As this case makes clear, HSI will go wherever the evidence takes us to ensure that those who compromise the integrity of the visa process are held accountable for their crimes.”

A nearly 200-page affidavit filed by federal law enforcement authorities alleged that Giles and the Wus told several of their immigrant clients to lie if questioned about the visa scheme. One client agreed to secretly record two meetings with Giles and Joseph Wu. In one excerpt of the recorded conversation, Giles tells the cooperating witness not to be concerned about lying to investigators, saying, “They will make threats in hopes that someone will . . . crack,” but they are “bluffing.”

Joseph Wu pleaded guilty in August 2011 to one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and surrendered a portion of his profits derived from the scheme. He forfeited to the government 30 vacant cemetery plots and 20 grave monuments; the plots will be sold at public auction and the proceeds given to the U.S. Treasury.

In pleading guilty, Wu admitted that from approximately 1996 to 2009, he and other members of the law practice set up nearly a dozen shell companies in order to file at least 137 fraudulent visa petitions for nearly 100 clients. Authorities said the clients never worked for the defendants or for the phony companies.

May Wu is participating in a pretrial diversion program for her minor role in the conspiracy.

The grave sites are located in Inspiration Meadow and the Garden of Gratitude at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. ICE investigators said Rose Hills had no involvement in the criminal activity. The case was the culmination of a two-year investigation.