A North Naples woman who illegally charged Romanians for work visas got a break Wednesday in return for her assistance in an ongoing federal visa fraud investigation.
But it came at a cost.
Flavia Marichal, 59, was fined $2,000 and forfeited $100,000, rather than losing a $160,932 condo in Pelican Ridge Villas in North Naples that she'd used to harbor aliens and charge them rent.
Marichal, a paralegal, was tearful and visibly shaking as she waited to hear whether her cooperation would help her avoid up to a year in federal prison. Her plea deal to harboring aliens for financial gain in August, which dropped a fraud charge, meant she didn't face 10 years behind bars.
The feds had agreed not to oppose leniency and her attorney, Michael R.N. McDonnell, told U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell he hoped probation would be sufficient in return for her cooperation.
Trembling, Marichal pleaded for leniency.
"I'm just very sorry," Marichal said as her 62-year-old husband, Roberto, sat behind her in the Fort Myers courtroom. "I apologize to the court and my family if I hurt anyone. I'm sorry."
But it was the sealed envelope that Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Barclift presented to the judge that was key to avoiding prison. In it were the details of the paralegal's cooperation against others who did fraudulent visa work like Marichal, who was paid $1,200 per visa she obtained.
"I do sincerely believe you are remorseful," Honeywell said, referring to letters from friends, clients, charities and church members who praised Marichal. "They are some of the best letters I've received in support."
Citing Marichal's "substantial assistance agreement" and lack of arrests, the judge agreed to a hefty reduction, putting Marichal on probation for three years, ordering mental health counseling and 60 days on house arrest.
Marichal, who sat tensely with her head bowed, began crying, wiping tears with a handkerchief.
She and her husband left with their attorneys, declining comment. Barclift wouldn't identify the targets of the ongoing investigation.
It was a sad ending to a story of a woman who escaped from Romania, leaving her daughter and husband, then suffered hard conditions in a German camp before emigrating to Canada, where she ended up in an abusive marriage. Her daughter eventually joined her, according to a sentencing memorandum, and Marichal worked blue collar jobs in the United States before graduating with honors from Hodges University as a paralegal.
She worked in a local law office before she and her husband started Fla Paralegal/Notary/Translation Support out of their Prescott Lane home.
Her plea agreement says she knew what she did was illegal, but applied for visa applications for 22 workers to help struggling Romanians because she empathized with them.
She admitted forging the signature of the manager of the Hotel Escalanté on Fifth Avenue South, who had used her services once in 2007. She knew the fraudulent visas would be used to get driver licenses. She charged up to $1,200 for visas for jobs that didn't exist, charging some aliens $400 rent to live in a condo she owned, and letting one paint her home in exchange for rent.
Marichal ran ads in the Daily News in July 2009, seeking waiters and spa employees for hotel jobs that didn't exist. She then got U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor approval, enabling aliens to get H-2B nonimmigrant visas.
The visas are given to foreign nationals seeking temporary work and enable employers to hire on a one-time, seasonal basis for up to a year if qualified U.S. workers aren't available. Marichal claimed she was designated to act for the hotel, saying servers were needed from October 2008 to June 30, 2009, and October 2009 to July 31, 2010, due to increased demand.
She swore they couldn't find qualified U.S. workers.
She lied on an employment certification, saying the aliens weren't charged fees, used her own address so no one would call the hotel and warned workers not to go to the hotel because it wasn't hiring.
It was a Romanian citizen who tipped off the feds, saying he and three friends gave Marichal $800 down payments and promised $400 more if they got visas.