When Georgi Stankov complained that he was installing cable at a construction site instead of learning computer skills, as he says he was promised, he was told, "Your mouth is too big and if you keep it up, you'll be sent back home to Bulgaria."
Stankov is one of nearly 700 electricians from Eastern Europe and Latin America brought to the United States under a 40-year-old federal program by a Greenbelt company, USA-IT, run on a day-to-day basis by a man convicted of bank fraud.
The purpose of the J-1 Exchange Visa Program is supposed to be cultural exchange and training, typically under the auspices of nonprofit organizations such as the YMCA. "Ordinary employment or work is strictly prohibited," according to the regulations governing J-1.
But a Sun investigation shows that USA-IT rented out Stankov and other electricians at a profit to construction companies around the country for up to 18 months. Besides doing electrical work, they often performed menial labor, sometimes digging ditches.
The arrangement was lucrative for USA-IT and the contractors.
The contractors got qualified workers at a bargain, paying USA-IT $15 an hour, half the prevailing union rate in the Baltimore-Washington area. The savings were formidable - instead of paying a typical worker $240 for an eight-hour day, the contractors paid $120.
From the $15 per hour USA-IT collected, it deducted a $5 administrative fee and further cut the workers' paychecks by charging them for insurance, tools, transportation and household supplies.
As for the electricians - many of whom have college degrees in electrical engineering - they got shortchanged on both training and income, pocketing little more than minimum wage.
"They lied to me," said Stankov, 26, who shares a Northern Virginia apartment with four other electricians enrolled in the program.
State Department memos show that USA-IT has been raking in as much as $140,000 a week by assigning the visa holders to contractors.
One contractor that obtained workers through USA-IT - Integrated Electrical Services based in Houston - bragged in an internal newsletter this spring that the company's savings from the program could amount to $5 million a year.
The nonprofit corporations that officially sponsored the trainees also benefited. A subcontractor of the YMCA of Greater New York got $440,000 from USA-IT, according to a federal source, for supplying the visas that enabled 240 electricians to enter the country and go to work for USA-IT clients.
Convicted of fraud
The president of USA-IT is Diego Asencio, a former high-ranking State Department official, but many of its day-to-day operations are handled by Dennis A. Laskin, a Bethesda man who pleaded guilty in 1993 to bank fraud and three years later was sentenced to an 18-month federal prison term and fined $500,000. He had been charged with defrauding a Maryland bank and the Resolution Trust Corp. of millions of dollars in 1991 and 1992.
Laskin declined to discuss USA-IT's activities, but Asencio, in an interview, repeatedly insisted that it is a training program, not a work program, even though the company's brochure tells employers that USA-IT specializes in "finding qualified electricians from overseas for every facet of the electrical industry."
Asked to describe the training, he acknowledged it was primarily "on-the-job."
"It is worrying that the program really appears to be nothing other than a way to import skilled or semi-skilled labor into the U.S.," according to a State Department memorandum obtained by The Sun. "It also appears that there is little real training going on."
Within the past month, the State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have jointly launched an investigation of USA-IT to determine "whether or not these people are in a bona fide training program," as required by law.
Stanley Colvin, head of the U.S. State Department unit that oversees the exchange program, said new regulations to specifically bar practices like USA-IT's are being drafted.
Asencio blamed his company's problems on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which he said had singled out USA-IT as part of an effort to unionize nonunion electrical contractors.
"We're being targeted for extraneous reasons that have nothing to do with the program. Our intention was to do good. Our intention was not to draw the fire of the unions," Asencio said.
But Colvin said that based on his conversations with trainees, "They feel they are not getting the training they were promised."
On a hot, steamy Saturday morning late last month, about 35 USA-IT recruits from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia trooped into an IBEW hall in Washington's northeast corner. The meeting was one of several being conducted by the IBEW for the USA-IT trainees.
"You've all been mistreated," Colvin told them. "What happened to you is unconscionable. USA-IT does not own you. They do not have the right to throw you out of the country."