A network of immigration law practitioners headed by an Orange County businessman was sued Thursday by Ventura County immigrant workers who were allegedly bilked of thousands of dollars.
The lawsuit alleges that Jan D. Vouziers, under the fictitious business name of Oscar Salinas, made false promises of legalization in Spanish-language radio programs that were broadcast from the state's Central Valley to the Mexican border in the late 1980s.
The civil suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court on behalf of six immigrants and the "general public" by California Rural Legal Assistance, seeks restitution and punitive damages for immigrants allegedly defrauded between 1986 and 1989. The amounts were not specified in the suit.
Named as defendants in the suit were Vouziers, Ann R. Whetmore, Sybil J. Daly, Thomas F. Mullen, Gloria Santacruz, Gustavo Renstrom and Sergio Nubes.
Also named were H-2A Growers Service Inc., H-2A Agricultural Workers Program, Alien Visa Service Inc., Attorney's Management and Financial Services, Hispanic Law Center Inc. and Southern California Immigration Inc., all companies operated in Ventura County.
Vouziers was investigated by federal and Orange County officials in 1989, but prosecutors said they were unable to put together a fraud case against him because the alleged victims were illegal immigrants reluctant to come forward.
However, as a result of the 1989 investigation, Vouziers was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 90 days in jail, a $20,000 fine and three years on probation, said Jerry Johnston, the Orange County prosecutor who headed the investigation.
The federal Department of Labor and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were also involved in the inquiry, Johnston said.
As a condition of his probation, Vouziers was ordered to cease operating immigration-related businesses, Johnston said. "At least I put him out of business," he said.
According to the suit filed Thursday, Vouziers enticed radio listeners with promises of well-paying jobs and residency for job holders and their families, and provided a toll-free telephone number to pursue applications.
"Defendants were then given the runaround as they were instructed to visit different offices throughout the state, such as Hispanic Law Center or H2A Growers Service--as part of the application process," said California Rural Legal Assistance attorney Stephen A. Rosenbaum.
In most instances, the workers were not even eligible for the visas and labor certifications being offered, the suit alleges.
Plaintiff Carmen Servin Botello of Simi Valley, a legal resident, contended that she paid almost $1,000 in 1989 for visas for nine family members, only to be told that her failure to submit last-minute paperwork on time disqualified the applications.
"They robbed us out of a lot of money," Servin said in an interview Thursday. "Most of the money I paid was not even mine. It belonged to my family members, and you know how difficult it is to raise dollars in Mexico. The whole thing turned out to be a farce, a big lie."
Another Ventura County plaintiff, Arnulfo Tapia, contends that he was bilked out of $3,100. A third defendant, Ventura County resident Isidro Morales, says he lost $2,100.
Santa Barbara County resident David Rey Rochin Reyes and Fresno County resident Jorge Trinidad Cordoba were also named as plaintiffs in the suit.
Vouziers could not be reached for comment. His attorney of record, Lew C. Geiser of Laguna Hills, said he handled only the criminal case and had not spoken to Vouziers in months.
Immigrant rights groups in Ventura and Orange counties said the suit was a long time coming.
"I hope the plaintiffs get every cent back," said Greg Simmons, immigration outreach coordinator for El Concilio, an Oxnard-based Latino rights group.
Simmons said many immigrants told him that they had wasted thousands of dollars at the Ventura-based Hispanic Law Center.
After the center closed, Simmons added, the accounts were sold to collection agencies, which continued to receive payments for immigration work that was never performed.
Lilia Powell, director of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said the suit against Vouziers and his business associates was long overdue.
"It's about time," she said.