Sunset Park

Sunset Park immigration center gets restitution after employees cheated clients

December 12, 2017 By Paul Frangipane Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Father Ruskin Piedra holds up an $11,000 restitution check from the Brooklyn DA after two of his former employees were caught embezzling funds and cheating clients. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Brooklyn DA gives $11K check after employees pleaded guilty

About a month and a half before the 2016 presidential election, the Brooklyn DA’s Office announced the indictment of a mother and daughter accused of cheating clients and embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from a Sunset Park immigration center. Now, at a time when the center’s schedule is booked until February and fear continues to rattle the country’s immigrant communities, District Attorney-elect Eric Gonzalez presented the organization with an $11,000 restitution check on Tuesday.

Gonzalez handed the money over to Rev. Ruskin Piedra, founder of the Juan Neumann Center, a nonprofit that offers immigration services out of Sunset Park’s Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“I just couldn’t believe that eight years of absolute trust, that in one moment, everything could hit the ground,” said Piedra. “To this day, I’m not over it yet.”

Nancy and Elisa Robayo pleaded guilty earlier this year to felony and misdemeanor larceny, respectively, revolving around their time working in the office that’s perched above a church gymnasium.

The pair pocketed at least five clients’ money by using hidden records and urging them to come to their homes for services that were never actually done. Suspicion arose when clients complained that they never heard from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services about their applications.

The various residents and citizens were petitioning to have their families visit the U.S. and did not suffer any punishment from immigration services, as the center fixed any wrongdoings for free.

Nancy Robayo was sentenced to five years of probation and her daughter, Elisa Robayo paid the restitution in addition to serving five days of community service.

“At the end of the day, it’s about holding people accountable,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter where people come from. We have to make sure that people feel protected.”

The allegations came at a time of uncertainty for the immigrant community with the incoming of President Donald Trump and his anti-immigration policies.

Piedra explained there is “very much a fear that somebody will knock on their door at 4 in the morning,” since the election.

The director of Cuban descent said the center worried that clients would be deterred by its former employees’ actions, but there had been no downtick in calls. He cited the daily visits of up to 10 clients and at least six file cabinets filled with records dating back to the center’s 2003 inception.

For extra precaution, the office is now guarded by multiple surveillance cameras.

Community-based immigration services, like the Juan Neumann Center, come by the thousands in New York City and are often physically placed within immigrant communities, according to Betsy Plum of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Plum says the groups are often trusted in their communities and well-equipped to deal with issues of the city’s some 600,000 undocumented immigrants.

As for the check, smiling staffers surrounded Piedra in the office as he gripped it and said, “I assure you, many, many more of our immigrant community will be helped by it.”