, Salem, MA

March 16, 2010

Prosecutor: Woman 'violated laws she was sworn to uphold'

By Julie Manganis

SALEM — Her very job, as Boston area director of the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection division, involved supervising hundreds of agents who spent their days trying to prevent people from entering the country illegally.

But "Lorraine Henderson violated the same immigration laws that she had taken an oath to uphold," when she continued to hire an illegal immigrant to clean her Salem condo for nearly five years, encouraging her to stay even after learning her status, federal prosecutor Diane Freniere told jurors yesterday during an opening statement in Henderson's trial.

Or did she?

Henderson's lawyer, Francis DiMento, argued to a judge that what his client did was not illegal and that she only intended for Fabiana Bittencourt to stay in the United States for the time it took Henderson to investigate ways to keep her here legally.

DiMento also argued that having Bittencourt clean her Brittania Circle condo every two weeks amounted to "sporadic, irregular or intermittent" casual employment, which, he contends, is not illegal.

"That's what we have, a nothing every two weeks and they all add up to about 30 nothings," DiMento argued to Judge Douglas Woodlock during a motion yesterday. DiMento may give an opening statement to jurors this morning.

A jury of 12 women and three men in U.S. District Court will then begin hearing the evidence that will lead them to their decision: Did Henderson, 52, violate the law she was responsible for enforcing by encouraging Bittencourt to stay?

Freniere argued that she did, telling jurors how, despite a warning more than two years earlier from a colleague and despite numerous trainings — some of them led by Henderson herself — Henderson continued to arrange for Bittencourt to clean her condo, communicating with her via notes and leaving cash for her on the counter.

DiMento, meanwhile, called the government's case, which is expected to include lengthy testimony about how the employment arrangement worked, "wasting a lot of time."

Freniere, the prosecutor, offered jurors a narrative of the case, starting in the winter of 2005 with a training that included an example of a Homeland Security employee hiring an illegal immigrant to care for an ailing relative. The employee in the example was fired.

Shortly after that training session, Nora Ehrlich, another Customs and Border Protection official, confronted Bittencourt, whom she had hired on the recommendation of Henderson more than a year earlier.

Bittencourt, who is Brazilian, admitted to Ehrlich that she was in the country illegally, having paid someone to get her across the Mexican border in 1991.

A few weeks later, Henderson was giving Ehrlich a ride home. Ehrlich nervously broached the subject of Bittencourt's legal status and recommended that Henderson stop using her.

Henderson's response: She never sees the cleaning lady and they communicate through cell phones and notes.

She then changed the subject, Freniere told jurors.

Two years later, the women were again sharing a ride home to the North Shore and Henderson mentioned an upcoming business trip to California. Ehrlich asked if there was anything she could do to help.

Henderson mentioned that she needed to get in touch with her cleaning lady — Bittencourt.

Ehrlich, stunned to learn that Henderson was still using Bittencourt, told her supervisors.

"This is a story about two women who made very different choices based on the same information," Freniere told jurors.

"Nora Ehrlich tells Lorraine Henderson that Fabiana Bittencourt is illegally in this country," Freniere said. "What did Lorraine Henderson do? She completely ignored the information."

And when Bittencourt herself raised the issue, in conversations that were being secretly recorded by investigators, Henderson gave her advice on how to stay, Freniere said, all the while continuing to use her services.

"Lorraine Henderson knew the value of that advice far more than most other people," Freniere told jurors.

If convicted, Henderson faces up to five years in prison.