, Salem, MA

March 12, 2010

Trial to start for official accused of hiring illegal

Salem woman headed up a Homeland Security division

By Julie Manganis

SALEM — A former top Homeland Security official charged with hiring an illegal immigrant from Brazil to clean her Salem condo for nearly five years — and allegedly encouraging her to stay in the country — goes on trial Monday in Boston.

Lorraine Henderson, 52, was the Boston area port director for the Department of Homeland Security, responsible for border security and ensuring people did not enter the country illegally through Logan Airport and other points of entry in New England, until her arrest in 2008.

But during that time, she was paying a Brazilian national named Fabiana Bittencourt to clean her two-bedroom, $330,000 condo on Brittania Circle, an upscale development off Highland Avenue, prosecutors allege.

The trial will get under way with jury selection in U.S. District Court before Judge Douglas Woodlock and is expected to take six to eight days.

Henderson's defense insists that as soon as she learned that Bittencourt was in the United States illegally, she tried to find a way to gain her legal residency, but when that failed, she no longer encouraged her to stay.

"Briefly stated, it is the defendant's position that, once she was convinced that the alien's presence in the United States was unlawful and that there was no procedure available to legitimize her presence, the defendant determined to discontinue, and did in fact discontinue, Ms. Bittencourt's housecleaning services," defense lawyer Francis DiMento stated in a trial brief.

Prosecutors point to recorded conversations between Henderson and Bittencourt, who wore a body wire to capture their discussions, and written notes exchanged between the two, in which Henderson advises Bittencourt not to leave the country because she would not be allowed to return.

Prosecutors also allege that Henderson had known for more than two years that Bittencourt was in the country illegally, after a fellow Homeland Security employee, Nora Ehrlich, who had also hired Bittencourt, discovered her status and fired her.

Ehrlich is expected to testify that she had warned Henderson in 2006 that she should stop using Bittencourt.

"In February 2008, Ehrlich learned that Henderson was still employing Bittencourt and several of Bittencourt's Brazilian friends to clean her home," according to a trial brief.

Bittencourt subsequently agreed to cooperate with investigators and continued to clean Henderson's condo every two weeks, being paid in cash, communicating through notes. Henderson even referred Bittencourt to a neighbor.

During a conversation in September 2008, Bittencourt engaged Henderson in conversation, asking if the car with the Homeland Security markings was hers, then said she needed help "because I have a little problem, you know."

Henderson indicated that she thought Bittencourt was going to get married, then advised Bittencourt "you have to put in paperwork and file, but ... you have to be careful 'cause they will deport you. Be careful."

She went on to advise her on the tape, "Wow, wow, if you leave, they won't let you back ... you can't leave, don't leave ... 'cause once you leave you will never be back."

Prosecutors say Henderson then offered to find out what Bittencourt could do to stay in the country, then made arrangements for her to come back in two weeks.

Prosecutors also allege that all of the payments were made in cash, which was unusual for Henderson, they say, because other service workers at her home were paid by check.

Before her arrest, Henderson had contacted another Brazilian couple about cleaning her home and hired them. They cleaned the condo just once before Henderson was arrested.

Henderson is facing up to five years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors had originally planned to argue that she used the illegal worker "for private financial gain," which would have doubled that potential penalty to 10 years, but have dropped that part of the case.