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Former owner and manager of Long Island catering hall indicted for forced labor and visa fraud

11 Dec

NEW YORK — Two Long Island men face charges of forced labor and visa fraud following an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York with assistance from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General (DOL-OIG).

Ralph Colamussi, 61, of East Northport, NY and Roberto Villanueva, 60, residing in the Philippines, are alleged to have forced immigrants to work without pay at The Thatched Cottage in Centerport.  Each are being charged with conspiring to engage in forced labor of immigrants and visa fraud, as well as related substantive counts, fraud in foreign labor contracting and fraudulent inducement of aliens to enter and remain in the United States in violation of law.

“This case is an example of ruthless labor trafficking hiding in plain sight.  These individuals allegedly committed visa fraud while forcing people to work in their catering hall under horrible conditions, in what seemed to be an inescapable situation,” said Angel M. Melendez, special agent in charge of HSI New York.  “It is important for anyone who may believe they are a victim of trafficking to know that our investigations are victim-centered, focusing on keeping the victim safe while bringing their traffickers to justice.”

“As alleged, Colamussi and Villanueva lured immigrants from the Philippines to the United States with false promises regarding jobs and overtime pay in order to line their own pockets at the expense of the victims,” stated Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “This Office, together with our law enforcement partners, will hold accountable those who engage in such illegal, exploitive behavior.”

As alleged in the indictment, Villanueva and Colamussi recruited prospective employees in the Philippines with false promises, made them pay upfront money in violation of law and directed them to conceal such upfront payments from the United States Department of State during visa interviews.  At the time of the events alleged in the indictment, Colamussi was the owner and operator of Thatched Cottage, a popular catering and wedding venue in Centerport, New York, as well as the owner and operator of the Jellyfish Restaurant, a popular bar located next door to the Thatched Cottage.  Workers were not only brought to the United States by means of fraudulent promises of specific employment, but upon arrival, were forced to work at lower than promised wages with no promised overtime.  Foreign workers were forced to care for Colamussi’s relatives, including his father, and to perform construction work at the Jellyfish Restaurant.  Workers were brought here on brief H-2B visas that expired shortly after their arrival in the United States.  Once their H-2B visas expired, workers were allegedly told by Colamussi and Villanueva to apply for student visas and to fraudulently represent that they intended to attend school full-time and had sufficient resources to support themselves during school.  Colamussi and Villanueva, at times, deposited funds in the workers’ bank accounts to give the appearance of resources and then withdrew the funds once the student visas were approved.  The workers continued to work for Colamussi and Villanueva during the term of their student visas, attending school one day a week.  When the workers objected to performing certain jobs or working consecutive shifts, Colamussi and Villanueva threatened to report them to immigration authorities.  Colamussi had many workers whose visas had expired living in his basement of his home in East Northport, New York, and working for him off the books.

The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.