, Salem, MA

June 19, 2010

Judge could toss case on ex-official of immigration

By Chris Cassidy

BOSTON — Charging that overzealous federal prosecutors had "crushed" her life, a U.S. District Court judge is now considering acquitting a former Homeland Security official from Salem who was convicted of encouraging her cleaning woman — an illegal alien from Brazil — to remain in the country.

Judge Douglas Woodlock noted it was "hapless hypocrisy" that Lorraine Henderson, 52, whose job was to supervise hundreds of immigration agents, would hire an illegal alien to clean her Brittania Circle home and that prosecutors demonstrated "an exercise of power disproportionate to the offense."

The judge's comments came during what was to be Henderson's sentencing at the Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston yesterday afternoon. In March, a jury convicted her of encouraging Fabiana Bitencourt, who paid $10,000 to be smuggled across the Mexico-California border in 1991, to stay in the country. Henderson hired and paid Bitencourt to clean her home, despite her $140,000-a-year job as the Boston area director of Customs and Border Protection.

Now Woodlock is considering Henderson's request that the judge set aside the jury's verdict and acquit her. Otherwise, Henderson faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But prosecutors recommended a lesser punishment during sentencing yesterday that would avoid jail time — 36 months of probation with four of those months in community confinement and another four months in home detention.

Woodlock repeatedly pressed prosecutors on their motivations for expending federal resources on the case.

"It's a cleaning lady," the judge said. "... Not Al Capone."

"You brought this," Woodlock told prosecutors. "... You decided to tee it up on a legal basis that's never been tried anywhere else because you had someone in particular in your cross hairs."

As a result, Henderson's Homeland Security career is over, she's been ordered to keep away from her former co-workers, and she now works at a pet store, the judge said.

"A person's life has been crushed by prosecutorial discretion," he said.

Prosecutors, however, argued they did not bring the charges against Henderson cavalierly.

"This was not a case brought without significant thought and consultation with experts throughout the country," federal prosecutor John McNeil said.

But Henderson's attorney, Francis DiMento, said the government's plan has backfired.

"This prosecution has done more to weaken morale at (Customs and Border Protection) than it has to strengthen rules and regulations at CBP," he said.

During the trial, Henderson's attorney claimed she only meant for Bitencourt to stay in the country for the time it took Henderson to investigate ways to keep her here legally. Once she found out Bitencourt had no chance of staying in the country, Henderson said she intended to fire her.

Still, part of her job included ensuring that people not enter the country illegally through Logan Airport and other ports in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"When you see that kind of delicious irony," Woodlock said, "people like to feed on it."

Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at