Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud for allegedly underpaying her babysitter, agreed to leave the U.S. as early as tonight, hours after she was indicted in Manhattan.
Khobragade, 39, who was charged in the indictment with making “multiple false representations” to U.S. authorities to obtain a visa for the caretaker, had been about to board Air India Flight 102 this afternoon, her lawyer Daniel Arshack told U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin at a hearing today. Khobragade wasn’t present, according to a transcript of the proceeding.
“I instructed her not to board that flight because I felt that there was at least a possibility that it would be viewed as flight” from prosecution, Arshack said at today’s hearing. Khobragade was later ordered by the State Department to leave the U.S. on the soonest flight and intended to do so, he said.
Arshack said his client had “diplomatic status” and told the judge she no longer had jurisdiction over the case.
“I was not willing to permit her to depart without appearing before your honor,” Arshack said.
Khobragade was first charged Dec. 12. Her case triggered a falling out in U.S.-Indian relations when news circulated that she was arrested by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service in front of her daughter’s school in upper Manhattan and strip-searched while being held with other female suspects. She was released on $250,000 bond which was unsecured.
At today’s hearing, Arshack asked Scheindlin to vacate his client’s bail.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kramer told Scheindlin that the State Department had issued a directive that Khobragade “leave the United States.”
“There is no need to exonerate her bail conditions because the prosecution in this case will proceed,” Kramer said.
Sheindlin later agreed that Khobragade wouldn’t be accused of bail jumping if she agreed to comply with the State Department’s request. “Counsel has represented that she is getting on the first plane on which she can get a ticket, hopefully tonight or tomorrow,” the judge said. The judge deferred any decision on bail for a later date.
The visa fraud charge against Khobragade carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, while the false statements charge has a maximum term of five years, said prosecutors in the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
“Khobragade did not want to pay the victim the required wages under U.S. law or provide the victim with other protections against exploitative work conditions mandated by U.S. law (and widely publicized to foreign diplomats and foreign officials),” according to the indictment.
The office initially said this afternoon that Khobragade had left the country today. Minutes later, Jim Margolin, a spokesman for Bharara, said the State Department had supplied incorrect information and only learned that she remained in the U.S. after her lawyer contacted officials.
“Preet Bharara’s reports to the contrary, Devyani Khobragade has not left the country, she is at home with her children,” her lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said in a statement.
“We are pleased that the United States Department of State did the right thing today by recognizing the diplomatic status to which Dr. Khobragade has always been entitled,” Arshack said in a statement issued late tonight. He accused the government of committing a series of “blunders.”
Prosecutors said they’d been engaged in plea discussions with Khobragade and her lawyer as recently as Jan. 5.
In a contract Khobragade submitted as part of the visa application, the diplomat said she paid the babysitter $9.75 an hour -- above minimum wage as required by law, State Department Special Agent Mark Smith said in the original criminal complaint. In a second contract, the diplomat agreed to pay the babysitter 30,000 rupees a month, or $573, the U.S. said, which came out to $3.31 an hour. New York minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
After her arrest, Khobragade was named by her country to serve as a member of its permanent mission to the United Nations, a position that gave her a higher level diplomatic immunity than she enjoyed as deputy consul general at India’s consulate general in New York.
The case is U.S. v. Khobragade, 14-cr-00008, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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