By Julie Manganis
SALEM — A former Homeland Security official was convicted yesterday of encouraging her cleaning woman, an illegal immigrant from Brazil, to remain in the country.
The U.S. District Court jury deliberated for more than five hours before returning a verdict of guilty against Lorraine Henderson, 52, of Salem shortly after 5 p.m.
Henderson, of 35 Brittania Circle, remains free pending sentencing, which is scheduled for June 17. She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"I can't understand it," said her lawyer, Francis DiMento. "I don't know what they (the jury) were thinking."
Henderson was the $140,000-a-year Boston-area director of Customs and Border Protection, a position she had held since 2003.
Part of her job responsibilities involved ensuring that people did not enter the country illegally through Logan Airport and other airports and seaports throughout southern New England.
But for most of that time, Henderson was employing the services of Fabiana Bitencourt, a woman who had paid $10,000 to be smuggled across the Mexico-California border, to clean her condo every two weeks.
Henderson testified last week that she did not know of Bitencourt's status, despite a warning from a colleague in 2006 that Bitencourt was in the country illegally.
Henderson said she dismissed co-worker Norah Ehrlich's warning with a "whatever," because she considered Ehrlich "unreliable."
When Ehrlich discovered more than two years later that Henderson was still using Bitencourt to clean her condo, she went to her boss. That touched off an investigation that led to Henderson's arrest in December 2008.
Bitencourt, who is now in the process of trying to attain legal residence here, testified that she wore a concealed wire to record conversations with Henderson, including telling Henderson that she was here illegally and asking her advice.
Henderson, on the tape, told Bitencourt not to leave.
"You have to put in paperwork and file, but ... you have to be careful 'cause they will deport you. Be careful," Henderson warned. She told Bitencourt, "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."
But Henderson and her lawyer said she only intended to seek out information for Bitencourt and, once she learned that Bitencourt had no chance of remaining here, intended to fire her.
Henderson also insisted to the jury of 12 women and three men that despite her high-level position, she was ignorant of basic immigration laws. At one point, she insisted she'd told Ehrlich that Bitencourt couldn't be illegal because she had an American-born child, something she acknowledged on the stand was not accurate. (Prosecutor Diane Freniere also pointed out in cross-examination that Bitencourt's child wasn't born until 2008).
Henderson told jurors Friday that her own lack of knowledge about immigration law was "kind of scary."
But even after Henderson consulted with a co-worker who had been a longtime employee of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and learned that there was no legal way for Bitencourt to remain in the country, she continued paying Bitencourt to clean her condo for another month.
Henderson said she intended to fire Bitencourt but never got the chance and assumed that she'd simply quit, "spooked" after realizing Henderson's government position.
Both Henderson and the colleague she consulted about the issue, Cindy Sutton, testified that they did not believe they had the legal authority to ask Bitencourt — or anyone else — their legal status in the country.
Henderson said she thought it would be discriminatory, and potentially an abuse of her authority, to do so.
DiMento said both he and Henderson were disappointed in the outcome. Asked how Henderson took the news, he said, "She's a very strong woman."
DiMento said he will ask Judge Douglas Woodlock to rule on a motion to set aside the verdict and enter a judgment of acquittal within the next seven days based on insufficient evidence, the same motion he filed during the trial. He said he will also ask for a new trial and, depending on the outcome of that, would then appeal.