Foreign Service officer pleads guilty in visa fraud-bribery scandal

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

A Foreign Service official accused of selling hundreds of visas to residents of Vietnam pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering.

Michael Sestak, 42, admitted in U.S. District Court that while serving as the non-immigrant visa chief in Vietnam, he accepted more than $3 million in bribes to approve visas for nearly 500 foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S., according to government prosecutors.

Wearing a gray jumpsuit and glasses, the soft-spoken Sestak looked more bureaucrat than felon as he pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity. The possible sentence for his involvement in the visa-for-cash scheme ranges from 19 to 24 years in prison, according to federal guidelines.

In a 50-minute session before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, Sestak also agreed to forfeit the proceeds of the scheme, which will involve the sale of nine properties he purchased in Thailand with the profits.

“His motivation for betraying his oath of office was cold, hard cash,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said in a statement. “This Foreign Service officer corrupted the integrity of a process designed to screen visitors to the United States, a process that obviously has implications for our national security.”

Sestak was serving in the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010 when he met Binh Vo, an American citizen living in Vietnam. They began a personal friendship and eventually devised a plan to obtain money in exchange for facilitating visas, according to federal prosecutors.

They worked with other U.S. and Vietnamese citizens to recruit visa seekers. According to a court document filed May 22, “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 conspirators collected payments ranging from $15,000 to $70,000 per visa. According to government prosecutors, Sestak would be informed of the identity of those who had agreed to pay before their interviews and would approve their visa applications, regardless of whether the information submitted was true.

The conspiracy covered at least 500 fraudulent visa applications, according to investigators. The Ho Chi Minh City consulate received 31,386 non-immigrant visa applications and rejected 35.1 percent of them from May 1 to Sept. 6, 2012, investigators say. During the same period, Sestak rejected only 8.2 percent of the 5,489 visa applications he handled, according to investigators.

Sestak ultimately moved his profits out of Vietnam “by using money launderers through offshore banks, primarily based in China, to a bank account in Thailand that he opened in May 2012,” according to an affidavit by Simon Dinits, a special agent with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. “He then used the money to purchase real estate in Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand.”

By the time Sestak left the consulate in September 2012 to prepare for active-duty service with the Navy, the scheme had raked in at least $9.78 million – and someone had tipped off investigators.

In July, an informant told consulate officials that 50 to 70 people from the same Vietnamese village had illegally paid for their visas. Using Internet protocol addresses – the unique numbers used to find particular computers or servers on the Internet – investigators began to trace visa applications online. They found money transfers, including $150,000 allegedly sent to Sestak’s sister in Florida, as well as incriminating emails.

“This opportunity will only last for a few more months, and after that it’s over,” one alleged co-conspirator wrote in a July 5 email quoted by Dinits in the affidavit.

Sestak was quietly arrested in Southern California in May and continues to be held without bail. No sentencing date has been set. His co-conspirator, Vo, 39, was arrested in September at Washington Dulles International Airport and has been charged with bribery, visa fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Three others have been charged with taking part in the scheme. Vietnamese citizen Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, 30, is Vo’s wife and is accused of assisting with recruiting applicants and laundering funds. Also charged in the conspiracy are Vo’s sister Hong Vo, 27, an American citizen, and Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen.

In the plea agreement hearing, Sestak agreed to cooperate in a continuing federal investigation.

“This case demonstrates how cooperation with (the Diplomatic Security Service) partners in the region allowed the Department of Justice to pursue charges where Vietnamese citizens were victimized by individuals guided by greed,” Diplomatic Security Service Director Gregory Starr said in a statement.

Email: vbergengruen@mcclatychydc.com; Twitter: @VeraMBergen

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