Michael T. Sestak, accused of selling visas, held without bond

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Foreign Service officer accused of selling hundreds of visas to residents of Vietnam made his first appearance in D.C. court Tuesday, as more details of the alleged conspiracy have come to light.

Federal prosecutors say that Michael T. Sestak, who’s also a reserve Navy officer, joined a 27-year-old University of Denver graduate named Hong Vo and others to recruit customers who’d pay up to $70,000 for a visa. All told, prosecutors say in legal filings, Sestak received “several million dollars in bribes” for approving the visas.

In a 10-minute session Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson informed Sestak that he faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery. For now, Robinson declined to release Sestak from jail and held him without bond.

Seldom looking up from the table, and dressed in tan pants and a gray T-shirt, Sestak sat silently next to his attorney during the session. In addition to agreeing on a preliminary hearing date of June 14, Sestak’s legal counsel, J. Michael Hannon, filed a bond review motion to be heard Thursday.

Prosecutors said in a May 22 court document that “a conservative estimate” of the proceeds from the alleged conspiracy was “at least $10 million,” although officials added that “approximately $5 million in proceeds remains unaccounted for” and is thought to be in Vietnam.

Authorities arrested Sestak in Southern California last month. Vo was arrested early last month in Denver, but she hasn’t yet appeared in D.C. court. In court filings, prosecutors have cited four other alleged co-conspirators, including one of Vo’s siblings, who live in Vietnam. The United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Vietnam, limiting U.S. officials’ ability to seize all the suspects.

On Tuesday, however, officials announced the arrest in Washington of a 29-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh, one of Vo’s cousins, as one of the alleged co-conspirators.In a previously undisclosed document, prosecutors identified another of the alleged co-conspirators as Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, also known as Alice Nguyen. On May 9, a State Department Diplomatic Security Service special agent, Simon Dinits, filed a warrant to seize money in a brokerage account in Nguyen’s name, claiming it came from visa fraud

Investigators say the alleged conspiracy occurred while Sestak was handling non-immigrant visas in the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. In court documents, federal investigators say Vo “earned a minimum of $45,000” last year for her alleged participation.

“Sestak agreed to approve non-immigrant visas for applicants for a fee,” prosecutors said in the court document filed May 22, while “Vo reached out to people in Vietnam and in the U.S. and would advertise that ‘the deal’ was being facilitated by a ‘lawyer’ who could guarantee visas for people to come to the United States.”

The alleged conspiracy covered at least 500 fraudulent visa applications, according to investigators. From May 1 to Sept. 6 of last year, investigators say, the Ho Chi Minh City consulate received 31,386 non-immigrant visa applications and rejected 35.1 percent of them. During the same period, Sestak handled 5,489 visa applications and rejected only 8.2 percent of them, according to investigators.

Sestak, 41, served in the consulate until last September, when he left in preparation for active-duty service with the Navy. By then, investigators say, an informant had tipped them to the alleged visa scheme.

Vo worked “at a series of jobs in Colorado and then California,” and then moved to Vietnam for about two years after graduating from the University of Denver in 2008, according to court documents filed by her attorneys.

“The defendant’s family members have verified that they have not seen any evidence of unexplained wealth on defendant’s part and that they were totally surprised by her arrest,” defense attorneys Robert Feitel and Sandi Rhee said in a May 23 request filing.

Feitel and Rhee said Vo wasn’t a flight risk and that they were attempting to get her released on bail.

Email: awatkins@mcclatchydc.com, mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @AliMarieWatkins, @MichaelDoyle10

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