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‘Favoritism’ in SLS investors' visa requests tied to Reid

25 March 2015

By Laura Myers
LAS VEGAS -- A top Department of Homeland Security official improperly intervened to fast-track visas for foreign investors in the $415 million SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino renovation after being pressured by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, according to an inspector general’s report released Tuesday.

“There was no basis for expediting the (visa) petitions,” the IG report concluded in the Las Vegas case, one of three high-profile projects Inspector General John Roth investigated for undue political influence based on whistleblower complaints.

Reid, D-Nev., made no apologies for helping the Las Vegas hotel-casino, which boosted the economy on the north end of the Strip.

“This is just one in many examples of Senator Reid’s commitment to ensuring Nevada’s tourism industry continues to thrive,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said in a statement. “In short, Senator Reid will always put Nevada first and fight for Nevada jobs.”

The renovation of the former Sahara and its 1,620 rooms took 18 months. It reopened in August with 3,400 employees.

The renovation was made possible by a combination of $300 million raised by the investment firm J.P. Morgan and $115 million raised through EB-5 visa financing, which gives foreign nationals a method of obtaining a green card in exchange for an investment in the U.S.

EB-5 visas allow foreign nationals who invest at least $500,000 in a commercial enterprise that creates or saves at least 10 full-time jobs to obtain green cards. The program has been controversial, with officials saying it is not unusual for lawmakers to weigh in on behalf of favored applicants.

In the current cases, the 97-page IG report found that Alejandro Mayorkas, who is now deputy secretary of homeland security, directly intervened to fast-track visas of well-connected foreign investors when he was head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. In some cases, including the SLS, lower-level bureaucrats had denied the projects deserved EB-5 visa consideration. Mayorkas overturned those decisions.

“Their allegations were unequivocal: Mr. Mayorkas gave special access and treatment to certain individuals and parties,” the IG report said, referring to the whistleblowers. “They told us he created special processes and revised existing policies in the EB-5 program to accommodate specific parties. According to the employees, but for Mr. Mayorkas’ actions, the career staff would have decided these matters differently.”

“Employees felt uncomfortable and pressured to comply with managers’ instructions that appeared to have come from Mr. Mayorkas or those working directly for him,” the report added.

Politics was at play, the whistleblowers said, and they bowed to the pressure.

“Many employees concluded, not unreasonably, that the pressure exerted on them was because the individuals involved were politically connected,” the report concluded.

The chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, scheduled a Thursday hearing to review the report. Roth and USCIS Ombudsman Maria Odom are scheduled to testify.

McCaul said the report was disturbing.

“The findings from the DHS OIG’s report regarding DHS Deputy Secretary Mayorkas’ apparent acts of favoritism regarding the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program are extremely concerning,” McCaul said in a statement. “The report details three specific cases where applicants, perceived to be politically powerful by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees, received special access and attention directly from Mr. Mayorkas during his time as Director of USCIS. According to whistleblowers, without his involvement these cases would have been decided differently.”

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