NEW ORLEANS -- The men killed and severely injured last month in a deadly oil platform fire in the Gulf of Mexico were Filipino guest workers brought here by a recruitment company.
The company is now defending itself against accusations that it lured poor Filipinos to Louisiana with false promises, and then forced them to work like slaves.
Dozens of similar guest workers are part of a federal class action lawsuit claiming they were trafficked here by companies including DNR Offshore and D&R Resources, which have murky ties to Grand Isle Shipyard and its executives.
Ex-workers told us they worked upwards of 400 hours a month with little overtime and that they were locked up in a bunkhouse, four men to a tiny room.
“They always, you know, just use us,” said Eduardo Real.
Recruitment company co-owner Randolf Malagapo said he and other Filipino nationals own and operate his businesses, with representatives in Manila and here in Louisiana.
Under this set-up, Malagapo has brought workers here under a special visa, an E-2 or investor visa. This visa allows overseas companies to bring workers to the U.S. by showing they have a big investment here and that the worker has special skills.
Malagapo, operating under DNR and D&R, has recruited hundreds of Filipinos to work as welders and laborers for Grand Isle Shipyard, a Galliano-based oilfield company. It was these types of laborers working on the platform when it exploded.
And in recent weeks, we spoke to ex-Grand Isle workers, Filipinos who said they were brought here under these types of investor visas.
Randy Cabuenas worked off and on with Grand Isle for several years. And he said he never understood the visa type.
"I don't have any idea about that. The company picks that,” Cabuenas said of his visa. “I don't know what it means. All I know is I come over here and work."
Cabuenas and more than 40 other men are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that claims the companies violated their civil rights. The defendants have denied the allegations, calling them inaccurate in court filings.
Cabuenas questioned whether DNR is truly independent of Grand Isle Shipyard, and lawsuits lists both companies as defendants.
On Louisiana incorporation paperwork, D&R lists a post office box in Galliano and a physical address in Golden Meadow, a tiny oil and gas industry town in Lafourche Parish.
It's a modest brick house beside the bayou. Assessor's records show the property is owned by Grand Isle Shipyard and its Chief Executive Officer Mark Pregeant.
But in the home, we found Malagapo. It turns out his nephew, Jerome, was one of the three men killed in the recent platform fire. We asked him about the allegations by Filipino ex-employees.
"Actually it's up to them what they wanted to say,” Malagapo said. “The only thing I can say is that hopefully God do bless them all."
We asked about his role as a middleman, in obtaining visas and recruiting Filipino workers.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you about it because this is already in the court. So we'll just leave it to the court."
Records show Malagapo formed D&R Offshore in 2006 along with a Filipino colleague and Bryan Pregeant, the vice president of Grand Isle and Mark’s brother. That corporation was dissolved in 2008.
In 2007, Malagapo created D&R Resources, according to records filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State. That company was a joint venture with a separate company – Thunder Enterprises – created by Grand Isle CEO Mark Pregeant and his brothers, according to documents obtained by Eyewitness Investigates.
Ultimately, D&R Resources remained 50 Percent Filipino-owned, and thus able to meet a requirement for bringing people here on the investor visa.
Malagapo told us that Pregeant the CEO is not involved in his recruitment company, DNR Offshore.
Yet, a year-old DNR employee newsletter states Grand Isle "was responsible for the creation of” DNR.
Wanting to find out more about their links and hiring practices, we visited Grand Isle's office several times in recent weeks and made numerous calls to Mark Pregeant before we got on the phone.
Pregeant declined to comment. He told us: "Keep getting your information where you are getting it from. You're in good shape.”
We reached out to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with the questions we had about Grand Isle and DNR.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox released the following statement: "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation unless or until the agency takes a public action against a specific individual or business. However, ICE routinely conducts worksite inspections and audits of employment records. These actions are a central part of ICE's overall strategy to deter illegal employment and ensure compliance with federal law."
With three men killed and three others in the hospital, news about the fire investigation and allegations of abuse have garnered big headlines in the Philippines.
When asked about the questions raised by his countrymen, Malagapo expressed regret about what happened.
"I just want to say sorry about them. Because you know, I love all these guys who are here,” he said. “We try to help everything we can in order for them to help their family. But this is what happened. So we can't control. Only God has control about it."
Federal offshore safety investigators are currently looking into the cause of the platform fire. The local FBI office recently said it had not opened a criminal investigation into the explosion.