From Inforum.com, Wendy Reuer, 20 May 2011.
Jury says Moorhead worker part of fraud scheme
ST. PAUL – A federal district court here has ordered Motivational Educational Training Inc. and its Moorhead office manager, Amy Cerna, to pay nearly $100,000 after a jury found them guilty of firing two women who refused to falsify documents.
The jury on Tuesday awarded Luisa Chavez-Lavagnino more than $53,000 and Debra Yanez more than $35,000 for lost wages.
MET is based in Texas but operates offices in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Louisiana. MET administers the National Farmworker Jobs Program, which provides job training to migrant and seasonal farm workers.
The program gives grants to state agencies and nonprofits such as Motivational Educational Training. To receive the grants, MET must prove its programs are successful and that migrant and seasonal workers are able to move on to higher wage and better benefit jobs.
Chavez-Lavagnino, who worked in the Rochester office, and Yanez, who worked in the New Ulm office, said they were asked but refused to forge, falsify and shred documents that were used by MET to fraudulently qualify the workers. They were fired in May 2009 and December 2008, respectively.
“Just based on my investigation and the trial results, most of the people asked to do that went along with it. My clients didn’t, and that’s why they were fired,” said Brian E. Cote, Chavez-Lavagnino and Yanez’s attorney.
During trial, one witness said only 10 percent of applicants were legitimately qualified for MET’s programs, Cote said. He said another witness estimated 50 percent of the workers were qualified.
“On paper, MET’s success seemed pretty good, but the truth behind that information showed that MET had hadn’t met the numbers,” Cote said.
Trial evidence included an email sent by Cerna, dated Feb. 24, 2009.
In it, she urged the Minnesota offices to increase their production, or the number of people approved for benefits, Cote said.
She offered the office that showed the most improvement a $50 dinner gift paid for out of her own pocket.
In pre-trial documents, presiding U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank writes that MET’s actions “leaves the court wondering if MET understands the seriousness of allegations made against it.” He also said he would be forwarding information to Minnesota’s U.S. attorney.
“So this case extends beyond just my clients being unlawfully terminated,” Cote said. “It extends to the issue of wasting federal grant money.”
MET officials and Cerna’s attorney, Michael J. Minenko, said they believe the jury’s verdict was not just.
Minenko said Cerna is still employed by MET. A message left for Cerna at the Moorhead office went unreturned on Thursday.
“All during trial, both Cerna and MET denied any wrongdoing. The jury obviously disagreed,” Cote said.
Cote said he plans to petition the court, asking Cerna and MET to also pay attorney’s fees, which he estimates, will be more than $70,000.
Minenko said his clients are discussing a possible appeal.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530