Two Silicon Valley executives charged with H-1B visa fraud

A pair of executives at a Silicon Valley information technology firm appeared in court this week on charges of H-1B visa fraud allegedly committed over the course of a decade, federal prosecutors said.

Elangovan Punniakoti, 52, and Mary Christeena, 47, were each charged March 31 with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and six counts of visa fraud. They appeared in federal court for the first time Tuesday.

Punniakoti and Christeena were the chief executive and president, respectively, of Santa Clara County-based Innovate Solutions Inc., which was incorporated in 2008.

Between 2010 and 2020 the pair submitted 54 fraudulent H-1B visa applications, sponsoring workers for positions that did not exist, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of California.

Instead, the workers were, in effect, lent out to other companies that paid more than $2.5 million in fees to Innovate Solutions to cover the costs of workers’ wages and salaries and a profit markup.

The H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign workers temporarily for “specialty occupations” located in the United States and is a critical resource for American tech companies, which import much of their coding and engineering talent.

The program requires that employers fill out an application for the new hire, detailing and attesting to the existence and details of the job and its duration and wages. The employer then fills out another petition, again providing and attesting to the wages and location of the job.

In some cases, an applicant such as Innovate Solutions can submit a petition on behalf of another company, called an end-client, where the H-1B employee would work.

Punniakoti and Christeena allegedly submitted documentation stating that the workers would be employed at Innovate Solutions or offsite at end-client companies.

But the internal jobs at Innovate Solutions did not exist, prosecutors alleged, and the workers said to be working offsite never arrived at the other companies.

“The end-client companies listed in the Innovate Solutions’ H-1B applications either never received the proposed H-1B workers or never intended to receive those H-1B workers,” federal prosecutors said in the indictment.

Instead, according to the indictment, Punniakoti and Christeena submitted applications for H-1B workers who would be placed with other employers that had work for them, not with the end-clients in the applications.

“Through this scheme, the defendants reaped profits and gained an unfair advantage over employment-staffing firms,” prosecutors said.

The charges come a year after President Biden allowed the expiration of a ban on H-1B visasput into effect by then-President Trump in the early days of the pandemic.

If convicted, Punniakoti and Christeena could face five years in prison for the conspiracy charge and 10-year sentences for each count of fraud, in addition to a $250,000 fine for each charge.