Five years ago, Lorraine Henderson was on track for yet another promotion in a career that had taken her from the typing pool to regional ports director for Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
Then, she learned that the woman she’d hired to clean her Salem condo for $75 every two weeks was in the United States illegally. And when she didn’t immediately fire the woman, federal officials pounced on Henderson, whose job involved preventing people from entering the country illegally.
While it’s not illegal to have someone perform occasional work at one’s home, regardless of his or her immigration status, prosecutors built their case around Henderson’s offer to her cleaning lady, Fabiana Bitencourt, to look into the process of her gaining legal residency, and the fact that she continued to pay her.
The irony-laden case made national headlines, and Henderson was even labeled “the worst person in the world” by a now-former cable news host.
She was tried and convicted of encouraging a person to remain in the country illegally, but after a two-year delay, she won a new trial. Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office appealed that new trial but then sought repeated extensions of time to file paperwork.
Finally, late last week, prosecutors gave up, filing a motion to dismiss the case.
The motion, signed by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, says that the government, having already expended substantial resources in the case, could not justify the substantial additional resources that would be required for another trial and likely appeal.
And though all he had to do was sign off on the motion, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock went further, writing a nine-page memorandum recalling his own “considerable doubt” about whether the pursuit of Henderson on felony charges was ever warranted.
While federal prosecutors showed no bad faith in their decision to pursue the case, the judge said, they were guilty of “poor judgment.”
“I can find only good judgment in the dismissal, albeit belated, of this indictment,” Woodlock said, approving the prosecution’s request to drop the case.
Frank DiMento, Henderson’s attorney, said yesterday, “I can only guess they felt that under the law that the judge had indicated he was going to apply in a new trial that they probably would not succeed. I have to take it at full faith that they mean what they say, that it wasn’t worth going forward.”
But what about his client?
When asked how difficult the past five years have been for her, Henderson was upbeat.
“They weren’t so bad,” said Henderson, from the Brittania Circle townhouse condo she managed to hold on to despite the loss of her government job.
Until recently, she made ends meet with a job at the nearby PetSmart on Highland Avenue. She was recently awarded back pay in an appeal of her firing and is now in the process of retiring.
“I’m happy it’s over,” said Henderson, 55. “I’m happy I can move on with my life.”
“She’s a very strong woman,” DiMento said. “I have so much admiration for her. She was born to be an executive. She could run General Motors.”
Her one flaw as an executive: “She’s got a big heart,” he said. “She couldn’t fire people.”