Wright State University entered into a contract with a company operated by a university trustee that allowed the use of a work visa program that is currently under federal scrutiny at the school, an I-Team investigation found.
The contract was between Wright State Applied Research Corporation, the university’s research financing arm, and Corbus, a subsidiary of Soin LLC that provides information technology staffing for companies throughout the world.
The contract between Corbus and the research corporation was executed in August 2014 while Vishal Soin, president of Soin and the current CEO of Corbus, sat on the Wright State Board of Trustees. Soin’s term expired in June 2015; the contract ended in September.
“Vishal wasn’t involved in the process,” Corbus Chief Financial Officer Stephen Catanzarita said in an interview. Vishal Soin is the son of Raj Soin, who founded the LLC.
The university came under federal investigation last spring for its use of the H-1B temporary work visa program.
Catanzarita said he has no reason to believe Corbus is part of the federal probe, which became public after a series of administrative actions taken by the school in May 2015.
Corbus officials say only about five students were hired by WSU — none on H-1B visas — before the contract was ended. But the contract included language that allowed for the hiring of “some or all of the technically skilled individuals” using H-1B visas.
Two experts who reviewed the contract for the newspaper said it sets up a potential abuse of the controversial program because it allows a for-profit company to get around restrictions meant to protect American jobs.
“This document is extraordinary abuse of the H-1B visa program,” said John Miano, an attorney for the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, who recently testified to the U.S. Senate on H-1B visa abuses.
“The contract sets the university up as just another body shop supplying contract labor,” Miano said. “This is the type of contract you’d see between body shops exchanging labor in the industry.”
Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said the contract appears to violate the intent of H-1B rules, which exempt universities from certain restrictions that others must following when hiring foreign nationals. “Just don’t know how WSU can justify doing this,” he said.
Wright State did not make anyone available for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions submitted on Tuesday.
The Corbus contract prohibits the research corporation from doing the same type of work for three specific Corbus competitors or 43 customers for two years. The names of those companies were redacted in a copy of the contract made available to the newspaper following a public records request.
Catanzarita said the idea for the contract was his and that Raj Soin — not Vishal — suggested he contact now-suspended WSU provost Sundaram Narayanan to set it up. The contract was signed by now-fired assistant to the provost Ryan Fendley.
Catanzarita said the contract initially was designed to hire WSU students to work at a call center that Corbus ran under contract for Procter & Gamble. Corbus paid WSU $18 an hour, adding up to $22,419 over the life of the contract.
But the contract was written to be expandable and have WSU provide staff for other Corbus customers, including having the university procure H-1B temporary work visas.
“Corbus understands and acknowledges that some or all of the technically skilled individuals employed by (Wright State Applied Research Corporation) and providing services in accordance with this contract may be foreign nationals, legally authorized to work in the United States pursuant to an H-1B Visa,” says a clause in the contract in which Corbus said it wouldn’t displace U.S. workers.
Despite that language, Catanzarita said the company never intended to use foreign workers on H-1B visas for staffing, and only about five students were hired before Corbus lost its P&G contract, ending the arrangement.
“Our only plan was to get students for this, and that’s why we chose to do it at their facility, because it was easier for students to do it between classes,” he said.
Catanzarita said the Wright State contract was Corbus’ first foray into “rural sourcing,” a practice in which staffing companies set up shop in areas with a low cost of living and high unemployment to tap into an inexpensive labor pool.
Monty Hamilton, CEO of Atlanta-based Rural Sourcing, Inc., said typical call centers employ non-skilled workers — paying about $12 an hour — so using H-1B visas on this type of contract might not make sense. But he noted that the contract gave Corbus the ability to use H-1Bs in the future.
Universities such as Wright State enjoy certain privileges when obtaining H-1B visas that for-profit companies don’t have. The university is exempt from a nationwide cap on how many visas can be issued every year — a cap that usually is reached within a week of when applications are accepted. And universities can pay lower wages than private companies because of protections created to keep companies from displacing American workers with cheap foreign labor.
The specific scope of the federal investigation has not been made public, but experts have said Wright State appears to have abused the H-1B program by using these privileges to secure workers for for-profit IT staffing firms.
Wright State took disciplinary action against several staffers. Narayanan, the school’s second in charge under President David Hopkins, was suspended and demoted along with a researcher. Fendley was fired and the university’s general counsel was forced to retire.
An I-Team investigation revealed the university has used H-1B visas to hire employees who worked at for-profit companies, including the IT staffing company Web Yoga and a defense research firm owned by then-trustee Nina Joshi.
Joshi said in an interview last year that her company’s contract with Wright State is under investigation. She resigned from the board in February, saying she wanted to focus on running her company.
‘I excused myself’
Ohio law prohibits public officials from using their authority to influence contracts for their personal benefit, though it doesn’t prohibit officials from doing business with the entities they govern.
Doug Fecher, CEO of Wright Patt Credit Union and a current trustee at Wright State, said he was careful not to get involved in negotiations that resulted in the sale of the credit union’s former headquarters.
A university-created nonprofit, Double Bowler Properties, purchased the two buildings from the credit union, and part of the former headquarters were later used to house the call center. The $18 an hour rate Corbus paid under its contract with WSU covered labor and rent at the center.
Double Bowler Properties bought the buildings in October 2014 for $6.6 million.
Fecher said the credit union’s chief financial officer negotiated the sale, and once he had any notion he might join the WSU board he was careful to avoid involvement. He said he literally left the room when discussion of the sale came up at Wright State executive sessions.
“When it came up, I excused myself from the room,” he said. “I left the room and I wasn’t even a part of that.”
Vishal Soin, the former Wright State trustee whose company had employees working in the Double Bowler building, sits on Double Bowler’s governing board.
Double Bowler President Gregory Sample declined to provide records about the buildings’ purchase, including copies of market appraisals.
In an email, Sample said the appraisals conducted by Double Bowler put the market price at several dollars per square foot above what his organization paid.
July 2006 – Ohio Gov. Bob Taft appoints Vishal Soin to the Wright State University board of trustees. Vishal Soin is president of Soin International, founded by his father Raj Soin. Among the company’s subsidiaries is the information technology firm Corbus.
August 2014 – Wright State Applied Research Corporation, the research funding arm of Wright State University, enters into a staffing contract with Corbus. WSARC agrees to supply “temporary personnel” to help Corbus staff its contracts. The contract allows WSU to use H-1B temporary work visas to acquire skilled workers.
October 2014 – Double Bowler Properties, a nonprofit created by Wright State, closes on the purchase of the former Wright Patt Credit Union headquarters. Vishal Soin sits on the Double Bowler governing board.
October 2014 – Corbus and WSARC start their first project under the contract, staffing a call center for Procter & Gamble with student workers at $18 an hour. The cost covers wages and overhead, including office space at the new Double Bowler property. Ryan Fendley, senior advisor to the provost, is listed as the university contact for the project.
March 2015 – Wright State begins invoicing Corbus for student labor.
May 2015 – Top university officials are suspended because of a federal criminal investigation into the university’s use of the H-1B temporary work visa program. This includes Fendley — who later is fired — as well as the university provost, a researcher and chief general counsel.
June 2015 – Vishal Soin’s term on the board of trustees expires.
August 2015 – The university sends its final bill to Corbus after P&G cancels the call center project. Company officials say about five students were hired, none under H-1B visas.
This newspaper has broke numerous stories over the past year on spending at Wright State University and its use of the federal H-1B temporary visa program. The program was the subject of recent U.S. Senate hearings during which testimony was provided about Wright State, which is under federal investigation for its handling of H-1B visas.