Indian American pleads for zero sentence despite admitting guilt in fake university case

Phanideep Karnati

A Kentucky-based Indian American, who pleaded guilty in Sept. 2019 to committing visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit in the infamous Farmington University case, is pleading for zero sentence in view of time served, arguing he is “lesser guilty “ than anybody else and he has been in the U.S. legally on H-1 B visa for nine years.

“We are pleading before the judge in the Eastern District Court in Michigan that my client Phanideep Karnati is an outlier in this offense and is substantially less culpable than his co-defendants,” Anjali Prasad, a former federal prosecutor, who is now a criminal attorney, told India Abroad ahead of her client’s sentencing on January 7.

A total of some 250, mostly Indian students at the phony Farmington university in metro Detroit that was created by the Department of Homeland Security as part of a sting operation to catch students for alleged violation of immigration laws, had been taken into custody in the case since January 2019.

The students had arrived legally in the U.S. on student visas, but since the University of Farmington was later revealed to be a creation of federal agents, they lost their immigration status after it was shut down in January last year. The school was staffed with undercover agents posing as university officials.

Besides the students, seven recruiters, all of them Indians who worked on a commission basis for the immigration authorities to help enroll students for the phony university, have pleaded guilty after being criminally charged with seeking to enroll students.

Karnati was one such recruiters who worked to enroll students in the university for “extra income” but was not aware that it was a fake university set up by immigration authorities.

Prasad last week filed the memorandum in support of “downward variance” from advisory guideline range for her client.

Prasad said that unlike his co-defendants, who were maintaining their immigration status through the Farmington University, Karnati has been lawfully present in the U.S. for the past nine years and was employed full-time in the field of information technology, and supplemented his income by aiding students from India in applying to legitimate universities in the U.S.

Karnati obtained his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Hyderabad before moving to U.S. in 2011. He was never enrolled in Farmington University.

Prasad said interested students would contact Karnati and they would discuss which universities would be the right fit and the students would complete the application and send it to Karnati, who in turn would forward the application onto the university.

“This is a legitimate service available to international students, and it is important to note Karnati declared this extra income on his 2018 tax return,” she said.

Therefore, she said, Karnati was hardly the mastermind behind a scheme as has been alleged by prosecutors to send international students to a fake university because he was already referring international students to American universities when he decided “unfortunately for him” to add Farmington University to that list. “This is a stark contrast to the conduct of the other co-defendants in this matter,” Prasad said.

Last year, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls was quoted as saying that the recruiters sentenced between 12 and 18 months in prison included Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida; Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia; Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, California; Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, and Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas.

Prasad, who filed the memorandum in support of “downward variance” from advisory guideline range last week, said under the sentencing guideline for Karnati, 39, a native of Telangana, prison time ranges between 24 and 30 months.

Besides being legally in the U.S. on an H1-B visa, Karnati is also married and has two minor children living with him, she said. “I am pleading that if my client is sent to serve prison time, his family will have to go back to India because they can’t live in the U.S. without the father and the husband who is the main work visa beneficiary. I'm hoping that the judge will give him lesser or no sentence,” Prasad said.

Karnati, who later secured employment as a data scientist in Connecticut, has been commuting between Kentucky and Connecticut for the last several months. On December 16, 2019, the Karnati family sold their Kentucky home and began preparations to return to India.

Karnati’s H1-B visa is pending renewal, and his wife and their eldest child have visas that are dependent on Phanideep’s visa status. The younger child is an American citizen. Since Karnati anticipates non-renewal of his H1-B visa, the family is prepared to depart the U.S.

Prasad argued in the memorandum to the judge last week that the hardship on Karnati’s family is exceptional to a degree sufficient to take this case out of the heartland of cases contemplated by the sentencing guidelines.

“When measured against a short custodial sentence and an unknowable amount of time in a DHS detention facility, the family hardship in this case is both exceptional and insurmountable. Accordingly, Mr. Karnati respectfully requests this court render a sentence of time served so that he and his family may immediately depart the country,” Prasad argued last week.

“I will personally appear before the court January 7 when sentencing is scheduled and I hope that the judge will give zero sentence or at least a lesser sentence,” Prasad told India Abroad.

“I think the chances are 50-50 that he will be given a lesser or zero sentence,” Prasad added.

Bill Hing, general counsel at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco, noted last year in published interviews when asked if Farmington operation rises to the level of entrapment that an entrapment is when people are not normally inclined to do something criminal “but do so when they are presented with something that is not legally proper by law enforcement. “I think that is going to be a problem for the government.”

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