At first blush, Upani Consultants of Chester County appeared to be a group of ambitious workers, mostly from India, who came to the United States on specialty visas to be employed as quality-assurance analysts and software engineers in information technology.

But in fact, according to the guilty plea by Sudhakar Majety in federal court in Philadelphia late last year, the company he created a decade ago in Phoenixville ultimately exploited the H-1B "specialty occupation" visa program by using shell companies and sham contracts to give the impression that Upani needed staff.

When the workers arrived here, according to the indictment, they learned that Upani had no positions and were forced to search for jobs elsewhere.

Majety, 46, of Spring City, Chester County, typically charged each worker about $4,000 for the visa and kept 20 percent of any money the worker earned. Workers who could not find employment had to pay him extra to keep their visas active.

"Worst employers ever. . . . Everything fake," a burned employee posted anonymously in 2012 on the website Glassdoor, which has online reviews of IT companies.

"You will end up cheated," another reviewer wrote.

Introduced in 1990, the H-1B program was created to help employers bring workers from overseas to fill immediate needs when there is a shortage of American job candidates with specific expertise.

The annual cap on such visas is 65,000, plus an additional 20,000 for people with U.S.-earned master's degrees. But because of rules on exemptions and renewals, the number recorded each year by the Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can exceed 260,000.

The law requires that all H-1B recipients have specialized training, or a bachelor's degree, in the specialty for which they are hired. They must be paid the prevailing industry wage. They cannot displace qualified American workers, and they generally cannot stay for more than six years.

The joint investigation by the Departments of Labor, State, and Homeland Security found that Majety, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from India, obtained "between 25 and 99" fraudulent H-1B visas and enriched himself by "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

While critics of illegal immigration often focus on low-skilled immigrants who sneak across the border without papers, the Upani scam casts light on a high-end fraud using doctored documents.

Sham contracts

According to the indictment, Majety created shell companies with such names as Farmulations, Growline, and Systek. Then he fabricated contracts with them and purported to pay the employees $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

On paper, investigators said, the shell companies were controlled by Majety's friends and employees, but he was in charge. Focusing on the visa petitions Majety submitted in 2011, investigators eventually charged him with four counts of creating false contracts for consulting services with the shell corporations as well as with legitimate businesses, including his children's day care center and a local grocery, which authorities did not identify in the indictment.

"None of these businesses needed or used the extensive IT consulting services provided in the contracts. The purpose of the sham contracts," the U.S. Attorney's Office charged, "was to fabricate the documentation needed to obtain the H-1B visas so . . . Majety could profit from them."

When the foreign workers struggled to find employment, according to the court papers, Majety instructed Upani's office staff, consisting of "a few young acquaintances he had met in his community," to "doctor up" the workers' resumés to make them more attractive to real employers. But most were forced to sit idle "on the bench," as Majety termed it.

"One worker," prosecutors wrote in a plea memorandum, "actually had to pay Upani her own salary [of which Majety kept 20 percent] for a few months in order to generate the appropriate paperwork to renew her H1-B visa."

Many of the companies that offer H-1B visa employment play by the rules; the ones that don't are sometimes called "body shops." In recent years, such companies, which used falsified letters of employment, benching, and other schemes to skirt the law, have been prosecuted in California, Texas, North Carolina, and Delaware, among other states.

Upani is no longer operating. A notation in the federal court docket says Majety, "despite performing well in interviews," has had difficulty finding employment whenever background investigations reveal his indictment and guilty plea. But this month, according to the court file, he was offered a $95,000-a-year job with a company in Pennsylvania as a senior Java developer.

Efforts to reach Majety were unsuccessful. A telephone number in his name is disconnected. His lawyer, Gavin Lentz, did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.

When Majety is sentenced April 15 in federal court in Philadelphia, he faces possible imprisonment, fines and assessments up to $1 million, and restitution to be determined by the court.

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1