Editor’s note: The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting hosted a reporting workshop on the U.S. visa system in April 2015. It was one of five specialized reporting institutes this year funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation through the Poynter Institute. Nearly two dozen journalists from around the country attended this two-day intensive workshop. The workshop spurred deep discussion and many story ideas, such as “High-tech on the Hi-Line? Proposed project relying on foreign workers prompts questions.”
Below, reporter Daniel DeMay explains how he carried out the investigation.
By Daniel DeMay, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
The nexus for this story came when I was searching through Department of Labor foreign labor certifications.
I came across 41 certifications for H-1B workers to go to work in Harlem, Mont.
Harlem is a tiny town up on the Hi-Line, an area of Montana along the Canadian border that is basically the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t see why any organization would base a high-tech work center up there, and I certainly wondered where all these foreign workers would live.
I looked up the company hiring the workers, SAKS IT Group. It’s a New Hampshire-based company, and its address returns a house. I looked up its website — a seemingly vague shell.
I called the company numbers I could find. One had no message at all — the office number — and the other was a personal voicemail.
All that got me wondering.
I found the principal owner’s name and plugged it into PACER. It hit on a bankruptcy case from a few years earlier. The principal, Rohit Saksena, listed his employer as Rose Community Development Corporation, also based in New Hampshire.
I then went back to the New Hampshire Secretary of State site and plugged in Rose CDC. It came back with a different address — in Montana — that happened to be exactly where those workers were supposed to be going.
On another site, I found that Rose had originally been listed with an address two doors down from the original address for SAKS IT (this address turned up in tax documents as well) — another apartment or residence. Also on file with New Hampshire was a document showing that Saksena had become the principal agent in 2012, taking over from Doug Stuart.
I did a Montana business search and found that Rose Community Development was listed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Montana, with Doug Stuart as the principal, director and CEO.
The next morning, I started looking for tax documents for Rose Community Development using CitizenAudit.org, and found that Stuart and Saksena were both listed on the forms. Stuart was listed as the founder, president and CEO, and Saksena as vice president of operations.
Saksena had signed all the forms.
The address on the forms was, again, the South Main Street address in Harlem that appeared on the New Hampshire SOS site, but not the address that appeared on the Montana business website.
I called the Rose CDC office number in Harlem. No answer.
I found the city’s number and called the mayor. I figured if a big high-tech project was going to happen there, the mayor would know. He hadn’t ever heard of such a project. I contacted the nearby chamber of commerce. They hadn’t even heard of Rose CDC.
A mystery, indeed.
I eventually found another number for Stuart and got hold of him at home. He told me about the “CyberRez” project, but couldn’t offer a lot of details. Saksena was the technical side of things. He knew how many workers they needed, how the project would proceed and so forth. He had been ill, Stuart said, and would get back to me.
Eventually, Saksena did get back to me and spoke at length about the project and what he expected it would take in terms of workers and time. I didn’t ask him right away about the weird business operations (more on those below) and in the end, I wasn’t able to get a follow up interview, which I very much wanted.
Back to looking over the tax forms, I tried to see if anything was odd or out of place.
I had never looked at 990s before, so I read up what I could find from CharityWatch.org.
I started noting the companies that Rose CDC was paying its fees to, fees that almost exactly matched its revenue streams, which later told me this nonprofit operates almost exclusively as a fee-for-service business.
When I looked up the first one, Big Sky Global, LLC, I found that Stuart was listed as the primary agent in Montana and Saksena was listed as the primary agent in New Hampshire. The company had a Great Falls, Mont., office address listed in Montana and SAKS IT’s address listed in New Hampshire. Go figure.
Then, I ran both their names through a principal search in New Hampshire (you can’t do a principal search without a special account in Montana, but I later ran Stuart’s name at the Secretary of State’s office in person). It turned up nothing on Stuart, but several things on Saksena.
Aside from SAKS IT and Big Sky Global, he was listed as the principal on two other companies. When I ran those companies through Montana’s business search, they were licensed here, as well — with Stuart listed as the principal agent here and Harlem addresses the same as Rose CDC.
I decided to call the consumer protection division of the state Attorney General’s office. I described the situation and the attorney advised me that it was likely that Rose CDC’s hiring of the company managed by Stuart was likely a breach of fiduciary responsibility (i.e. not legal), particularly because Rose CDC has only three board members: Stuart, his mother and a university professor from New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out the H-1B situation. I found labor certifications for Big Sky Global and, of course, those for SAKS IT.
But those certifications do not equal actual workers.
I also learned that the disclosure data from the Department of Labor doesn’t equal actual people, either.
I negotiated with the U.S. Center for Immigration Services and the State Department trying to figure out where I could even get the information I wanted, which was whether Big Sky Global had hired anybody who went to work in Montana, ever.
Eventually, I filed a FOIA with the State Department, but that came back (only this week) as too wide of a search.
It’s unlikely I would get much from them anyway, as they don’t release any personal information.
Thanks to help from Tim Henderson, I came across www.guestworkerdata.org and contacted the guys who put that together. They had filed FOIAs for the form I-129s, the actual petitions that employers use to bring in the workers, and had hard numbers for a few years on how many workers had actually come to work for companies in all 50 states.
I went up to Great Falls and to Harlem to explore the offices and talk to the people.
The Great Falls office was a ghost town, and neighbors reported seeing only Doug Stuart there, but rarely. In Harlem, people had plenty more to say and interviews there helped solidify the theories I had been working on, mainly that the project seemed farfetched and that the businesses may not be completely honest.
An in-person follow-up interview with Stuart gave me the chance to ask some questions again and some further, more direct questions about his business dealings. I would interview him once more by phone after that. He was very angry during that last call, but I stayed calm and let him talk.
He talked plenty.
Throughout this work, I also spoke to immigration attorneys, nonprofit watchdog groups, city governments and journalists. The documents and data I found were very useful and helped spur my questions about everything on the story, but talking it through over and over again helped me come to questions I might not have asked — either of the data or of the people.
All in all, it was a blast to work on.