Edmonton·Exclusive

Former Tory MLA Carl Benito target of immigration fraud investigation

The Canada Border Services Agency raided the home and office of former Alberta Progressive Conservative MLA Carl Benito as part of an investigation into what the agency says was a three-year immigration fraud scheme.

Canada Border Service Agency alleges bogus study and work permit scheme

A sign in the lobby at the Ramada Edmonton South promotes Carl Benito's company, Triple Maple Leaf Canada. Documents say Benito conducts immigration business from his home and from a rented conference room at the hotel. (Charles Rusnell/CBC)

The Canada Border Services Agency raided the home and office of former Alberta Progressive Conservative MLA Carl Benito, seizing more than $250,000 in cash — mostly in bundles of $100 bills — as part of an investigation into what the agency says was a three-year immigration fraud scheme.

Search warrant documents obtained by CBC News show CBSA officials believed that since Nov. 11, 2015, Benito, now an immigration consultant, had counselled dozens of Filipino immigrants to improperly extend their stay in Alberta through a scheme that involved bogus applications for study and work-extension permits.

It is also alleged Benito, who is a Filipino immigrant, illegally employed at least one and possibly several fellow Filipino immigrants since Sept. 16, 2016.

No charges have been laid against Benito and none of the allegations in the documents have been proven in court. It is not known if the investigation is still ongoing. Benito did not respond to several interview requests from CBC News over the past two days.

CBSA officials believed that former Alberta Progressive Conservative MLA Carl Benito counselled dozens of Filipino immigrants to improperly extend their stay in Alberta through a scheme that involved bogus applications for study and work-extension permits. 3:07

A search warrant application filed June 27 details how a months-long investigation allegedly determined Benito was counselling immigrants whose work permits were expiring to apply for study permits involving two small private Edmonton colleges, knowing his clients had no intention of attending.

The documents reveal this alleged fraud hinged on a scheme in which Benito, or one of his companies, arranged for up to $20,000 to be transferred into his clients' bank accounts, and then transferred out, sometimes almost immediately. This allegedly created false proof that the clients had the necessary funds to support their education and living costs.

"Within approximately one hour, $17,000 transited through three of Benito's clients' bank accounts" on Jan. 28, 2016, the search warrant states. "On April 21, 2016, within approximately half an hour, $17,000 transited between two of Benito's clients' bank accounts. All five of these clients were applying for study permits."

Submitting incomplete applications 

Five clients were interviewed and found to have misrepresented their study permit applications, "and a further 79 foreign nationals have been identified as obtaining study permits for the Academy of Learning or MaKami College through Benito and his companies but did not attend school."

CBSA investigator Amy Pambianco also alleges in the application that Benito counselled immigrants to submit incomplete applications for work permit extensions. She said Benito knew the incomplete applications would be refused but that it would take three to four months to process them.

"This is being used as a mechanism to buy more time in Canada allowing the applicant to benefit from implied status until the application is decided upon," Pambianco stated in the document.

"They are making an application which is not truthful, as they have no intention of working at that location, nor do they have the requirements to do so."

Bundles of $100 bills seized

The search warrants for Benito's house and his office at an Edmonton hotel were executed on June 28, the day after Edmonton justices of the peace granted the applications.

The list of items seized from Benito's house and office runs nearly 50 pages and includes:  

  • More than $185,000 in bundles of $100 bills seized from two floor safes;
  • Bags filled with bundles of $100, $50, and $20 bills, and numerous payment envelopes filled with cash bearing what appears to be the names of clients. In total, more than $70,000 was seized from a cabinet safe;
  • Workers' schedules, payments and employee timesheets;
  • Several computers, tablets and cell phones;
  • Ledgers, receipt books, banking records and dozens of client files.

Benito served as Progressive Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Mill Woods from 2008 until 2012, when he lost the nomination to Sohail Quadri.

His term in politics was marked by controversy.

Then-MLA Carl Benito speaks to reporters at the Alberta legislature in 2010. (CBC)

In August 2010, Benito walked back a campaign promise to donate his entire salary, roughly $75,000 a year, to charity in the form of scholarships. Benito told CTV News his promise had been misunderstood; he had intended to donate one year's pay over time, and had already donated $65,000 to charity.

Later that year, Alberta's ethics commissioner disclosed Benito had failed to pay about $8,000 in property taxes. Benito paid the outstanding taxes, blaming his wife for the oversight.

The CBSA search warrant documents show Benito and his family operate three immigration consulting companies: Triple Maple Leaf Canada, World Immigration Group and Helping Migrants Canadian Immigration.

On the Helping Migrants website, Benito touts his time as an Alberta MLA and bills himself as the best immigration consultant in Edmonton.

He has posted testimonial videos with smiling Filipino immigrants for whom he successfully sought residency, work permits and study permits. Other videos market his immigration business seminars in Canadian cities such as Calgary, Fort McMurray, Niagara Falls, Ont., and in the Philippines.

Undercover surveillance operation

The CBSA search warrant documents describe Benito conducting a large immigration business from his home and from a rented conference room in the Ramada Edmonton South. The CBSA had sent an undercover officer into the conference room on June 14.

The search warrant application says the officer noted that the room "was organized with collapsible plastic tables, set up in a call centre type of arrangement with several tables placed together in several rows spanning the room."

The officer said about 16 people worked in the room — all appearing to be of Filipino descent — and each had a laptop and a cellphone.

CBSA officials conducted surveillance of the hotel parking lot, identifying workers by running their licence plates using a police database.

"During this time, five foreign nationals without legal status in Canada were observed parking outside the Ramada Edmonton South and entering the business centre location, and remaining there for much of the day and returned again on subsequent days," the search warrant application states.

A photo from the Carl Benito World Immigration Facebook page. The picture was taken at a 2017 event at the Ramada Airdrie Hotel and Suites. (Facebook)

The surveillance, the document states, confirmed statements provided by one of Benito's clients who had told investigators in an interview that "Benito typically employs a number of foreign nationals who are without status, some of which are waiting for pending humanitarian and compassionate applications."

A CBSA officer arrested one employee who is alleged to have been in Canada without status since May 20, 2015.

She had unsuccessfully applied for a study permit in October of 2016. Before making the study permit application, the woman, who first came to Canada in December 2009, had been refused three work-permit applications and an application on humanitarian grounds.

The CBSA investigator said she determined the woman lived with three other Filipinos in a house owned by Benito, three doors from the Benito residence.

Alleged study-permit scheme involving loans

The CBSA interviewed several immigrants who allegedly participated in the immigration scheme. Through those interviews, collected documents including bank records, and surveillance operations, a picture emerged of how the CBSA alleged the scheme operated.

Immigrants whose work permits were expiring allegedly learned about Benito and his services from others in the Filipino community or from his many Facebook and YouTube videos that trumpeted his success as an immigration consultant.

One immigrant described meeting Benito at his home in southwest Edmonton that functioned as an office, with a secretary and waiting rooms filled with people.

A sign in the lobby of Ramada Edmonton South outlines some services provided by Carl Benito's immigration services. (Charles Rusnell/CBC)

Benito would meet with the client and describe the options for staying in Canada. For one unmarried young woman, Benito allegedly wrote on her client assessment form to go to a dating website — Plenty of Fish — "to find a suitable Canadian candidate to marry her."

Benito also allegedly counselled immigrants to submit study-permit applications for one of two small private colleges, MaKami College and the Academy of Learning. The programs the immigrants enrolled in did not require a deposit, and "have very minimal requirements for prospective students to receive a letter of acceptance," the search warrant document states.

To obtain study permits, the applicants had to prove to the Canadian government they had enough money — at least $17,000 — to cover their education and living costs. But many did not have that money.

The CBSA alleges that for a cash fee of $250 to $450, Benito would arrange a short-term loan. It is alleged Benito counselled his clients to open an account at a TD bank. The documents don't explain why he allegedly directed them to TD.

'Proof of funds'

In some cases, Benito's secretary drove the client to the bank "and a large sum of money was transferred into their account at which point they acquired an account statement from the bank as proof of funds," the search warrant application states.

"They would then proceed to another TD bank branch and the secretary would assist in transferring the money into another foreign national's account for their statement, or back to the source."

Of the five foreign nationals interviewed by CBSA officials, three said "Benito arranged for money to be transferred into their bank account for a very short period of time and have provided a copy of their TD bank account deposit history showing a $17,000 transfer into and out of their accounts to comply with the study permit application requirements."

96 incomplete work-permit applications

The door of a hotel conference room where Carl Benito operates his immigration business. Kuya is a Filipino word for "brother." (Charles Rusnell/CBC)
With the letter of acceptance from the private college and the bank account statement, Benito or one of his companies then allegedly applied for the clients' study permits.

The CBSA checked with the private colleges to verify how many of Benito's clients actually attended. Of the 54 accepted to the Academy of Learning, none attended. Thirty-one enrolled at MaKami College. Six attended, but two withdrew early.

The CBSA alleges the clients didn't attend school but may have worked up to 20 hours a week, as allowed under their permits.

The other, often interconnected, part of the alleged scheme involved Benito counselling clients to purposely submit work permit applications without all necessary documents.

An investigator's analysis of work permits submitted by Benito on behalf of clients between Jan. 1, 2016 and March 29, 2018 found 96 were incomplete.

"All these applications were refused; however by making these applications, these individuals benefited from implied status," the search warrant application states.

Both the CBSA and the Public Prosecution Service declined to comment on the case. It is not known what happened to the clients who participated in the alleged scheme.

If you have any information about this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

@charlesrusnell

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