rediff.com

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  

Rediff News  All News 
Rediff.com  » News » Indian deputy consul general arrested in US on visa fraud charges

Indian deputy consul general arrested in US on visa fraud charges

Last updated on: December 13, 2013 09:17 IST

Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general for political, economic, commercial and women’s affairs, Consulate General of India, New York, was arrested on Thursday morning for allegedly presenting fraudulent documents to the United States State Department in support of a visa application for an Indian national employed as a babysitter and housekeeper at Khobragade’s home in Manhattan.

 

The arrest of Khobragade, 39, was announced by Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York.

 

Prosecution sources said Khobragade was not arrested from her home or from her office, “but from somewhere else in Manhattan.”

 

She was charged with one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements, which carry maximum sentences of 10 years and five years in prison respectively.

 

Khobragade, who was produced on Thursday afternoon before US Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman, was released on $250,000 personal recognizance bond co-signed by three people, prosecution sources said.

 

“She has to surrender all travel documents and no new applications and her travel is restricted to the US with notice to pre-trial before interstate travel,” a highly placed prosecution source told Rediff.com.

 

“She is also not allowed to sponsor any visas, or have any direct or indirect contact with Witness-1 (the domestic worker) or the worker’s immediate family. She can, however, continue to work in whatever position she is working -- with the restrictions.”

 

According to the allegations in the criminal complaint unsealed in the Manhattan federal court, diplomats and consular officers may obtain A-3 visas for their personal employees, domestic workers, and servants if they meet the requirements set out in the Foreign Affairs Manual. As part of the application process, an interview at the embassy or consulate is required and proof is required that the applicant will receive a fair wage sufficient to support himself financially, comparable to that being offered in the area of employment in the US.

 

To apply for an A-3 visa, the visa applicant must submit an employment contract signed by both the employer and the employee that must include, among other things, a description of duties, hours of work, the hourly wage -- which must be the more than the minimum wage under US federal and state law, or the prevailing wage -- for all working hours, overtime work, and payment.

 

According to the charges, Khobragade prepared and electronically submitted an application for an A-3 visa application through the Web site for the State Department’s Consular Electronic Application Centre for an Indian national (‘Witness-1’), who was to be her personal employee beginning November 2012 at an address in New York.

 

The visa application stated, per the court papers, that the domestic worker -- whose name was not disclosed -- was to be paid $4,500 per month in US dollars.

 

Khobragade and the domestic worker also signed an employment contract, the court papers said, to bring the worker for an interview at the US embassy in India in connection with the visa application, which the worker did.

 

‘The First Employment Contract stated,’ the court documents said, ‘among other things, that Khobragade would pay her the prevailing or minimum wage, whichever is greater, resulting in an hourly salary of $9.75. The DCG knew that the First Employment Contract that she caused Witness-1 (the worker) to submit to the US State Department in connection with latter’s visa Application contained materially false and fraudulent statements about, among other things, her hourly wage and hours worked.’

 

The allegation, per the court documents, is that ‘prior to the signing of the First Employment Contract, the DCG and Witness-1 had agreed that Khobragade would pay Rs 30,000 per month, which at the time was equivalent to $573.07… At 40 hours per week, with approximately 4.3 weeks in a month, $573.07 equates to a rate of $3.31 per hour. However, the DCG instructed Witness-1 to say that she would be paid $9.75 per hour, and not to say anything about being paid Rs 30,000 per month. She also instructed Witness-1 to say that Witness-1 would work 40 hours per week, and that Witness-1’s duty hours would be 7 am to 12:30 pm, and 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. She told Witness-1 that the First Employment Contract was a formality to get the visa.’

 

Witness-1 worked for the DCG as a household employee in New York from roughly November 2012 to June 2013. Witness-1 was paid even less than Rs 30,000 per month, or $3.31 per hour, the prosecution alleged.

 

“Foreign nationals brought to the US to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to US citizens,” Bharara said in a statement. “The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would issue for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage. This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”

 

Defence attorney Daniel Arshack said, “I cannot make any comment at this stage except that she (Khobragade) has been released on her recognizance.”

 

This means that she did not have to post the quarter million dollars for the bail, but was released on her personal promise.

 

Defence sources said Khobragade pleaded not guilty, and her attorney argued in the court that her client enjoys diplomatic immunity and should not have been arrested.

 

“The defence would raise the issue of both the accuracy and the legitimacy before the court at a future date,” a source said.

 

This is not the first time that Indian consular officials have been in the midst of controversies involving domestic help.

 

Dr Neena Malhotra -- who worked as a consul at the consulate in New York -- was asked to pay almost $1.5 million to her former domestic worker Shanti Gurung. But Gurung filed the case after Malhotra was transferred to India.

 

The domestic help issue also clouded former Prabhu Dayal’s tenure as consul general in New York. Santosh Bhardwaj, Dayal’s housekeeper, filed a lawsuit alleging forced labour and psychological coercion.

 

The case was settled when Dayal was still posted in New York.

 

But this is the first time that a high-ranking diplomat has been arrested.

 

“This is absolutely shocking news for all of the Indian diplomatic community,” a highly placed diplomatic source said.

 

Others expressed similar sentiments.

 

“Certainly… it (the arrest) tarnishes the image of India and the Indian community worldwide,” said an Indian-American community leader who wanted to remain anonymous. 

Image: Devyani Khobragade

 Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York