Travel Photographer/FS Spouse Seeks to Help Rebuild a Small Corner of Nepal

Posted: 2:58 am EDT

 

The impact of the 25 April and 12 May earthquakes resulted in over two million people in Nepal losing their houses due to damage. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, during September and October this year, population movements are expected to increase, particularly with the mass outflux from the Kathmandu Valley to districts before the Dashain festival beginning in late October. On a smaller scale, with the end of the monsoon, the majority of those residing in spontaneous settlement and those relocated due to landslide risks will likely return to their original residence. Ensuring comprehensive returns will also depend on the availability of support for shelter reconstruction.

Derek Brown, a Foreign Service spouse and a friend of the blog is helping with shelter reconstruction in a small corner of Nepal.  Derek is an American travel photographer, currently based in Kathmandu. He was previously in Pakistan and India with his USAID FSO spouse and has been generous in sharing some of his photos with this blog (see Derek Brown’s Photographs From India — Old Delhi, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, and Kutch; NYT’s India Ink Features Awesome Photographer and USAID/EFM).

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Derek wanted to document Nepalis helping Nepalis, and reached out to his friend Pawan Shakya whom he’d first met in 2013. Pawan who runs a small family publishing business from Durbar Square, the historic center of Kathmand has already embarked on self-funded relief projects aimed at some of the neediest villages following the earthquake. Derek realized that he could help in the planning, funding and execution of Pawan’s projects. He brought in Tyler Driscoll, a graphic designer he knew from San Francisco and together they put up a GoFundMe fundraising to help rebuild a small corner of Nepal.

The relief effort is intended to improve the lives of over 500 earthquake-stricken Nepali villagers in 2 villages. They picked the village of Chhap, 3.5 hours northeast of Kathmandu. Of 250 houses in the area, only 1 remained inhabitable after the earthquakes. The other location Ranipauwa Village is roughly 1.5 hours drive northwest of Kathmandu, and was almost totally destroyed by the earthquake, with essentially none of the houses inhabitable or even repairable.

The villages were selected based on need, the ability of villagers to help each other, and their ability to help themselves. Very importantly, one young man from each village works for Pawan’s family business. Having a person from inside each community not only provides valuable insight into issues and opportunities, but it also facilitates ongoing communication and monitoring that can help avoid all sorts of missteps.

They plan not only to build bamboo relief houses, they also plan to fund chicken farms, replace livestock and provide improved seeds for future plantings in the two villages.

derek bamboo hse

Tyler, Derek and Pawan © 2015 Derek Brown http://www.rebuildnepaltogether.com/photo-blog/

Derek says that neither Pawan nor him will be taking any compensation at any point–Pawan is doing the calendar printing at cost and there will be no charge for Derek’s  images.  The GFM campaign provides other rewards that do carry cost like mugs, t-shirts, large prints, so do let them know if you do not want them.  They have raised about $11K so far in the last two months of their GFM campaign.   If you are able to help, check out their GFM campaign: http://www.gofundme.com/nepaltogether.

You may also follow Derek’s photo blog documenting their rebuilding efforts here: http://www.rebuildnepaltogether.com/photo-blog/

Below is a photo of a mother and child washing hair in a creek in Nepal, one of our favorites from Derek’s  collection. What a lovely smile! Check out the rest of his photos on Facebook and Tumblr.  धन्यवाद

Photo by

© 2015 Derek Brown

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US Embassy Paris: Three Americans in France, “Don’t just stand by and watch.”

Posted: 5.25 pm EDT

 

Via France 24:

The three Americans, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler who overpowered a heavily-armed gunman in a train, and have been hailed as “heroes” had a press conference at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris over the weekend.

The alleged attacker, 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, boarded a high-speed train in Brussels bound for Paris on Friday carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, an automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter.

“The gunman would have been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up. I want that lesson to be learned. In times of terror like that to please do something. Don’t just stand by and watch.”

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What’s Next For Former FSO Michael Sestak, Plus Some Unanswered Questions

Posted: 2:05 pm EDT

 

On August 14, 2015, former FSO Michael T. Sestak was sentenced to 64 months imprisonment for receiving over $3 million in bribes in exchange for visas at the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The Preliminary Consent Order of Forfeiture filed in the District Court of Columbia includes forfeiture of a) “any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the offense;” and  b) “a money judgment equal to the value of any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the offense.”

The consent order identifies 1) any and all funds and securities seized from Scottrade Account #XXXX001S, held in the name of Anhdao Thuy Nguyen (“Scottrade Account”); and 2) $198,199.13 seized from the Department of Treasury from the Treasury Suspense Account under Seizure Number 38l30010—O1 (“Treasury Account”); and 3) a money judgment in the amount of at least $6,021,440.58, for which the defendant (Sestak) is jointly and severally liable with any co-conspirators ordered to pay a forfeiture money judgment as a result of a conviction for either offense.

In the plea agreement, Sestak agreed to sell nine properties in Thailand and that the proceeds would be paid to the United
States to satisfy a portion of the money judgment entered against him. The consent order also notes that “upon entry of a forfeiture order, Fed. R. Crim. P. 32.2(b)(3) authorizes the Attorney General or a designee to conduct any discovery the Court considers proper in identifying, locating, or disposing of property subject to forfeiture.”

In a pre-sentencing filing,  Mr. Sestak requested that any term of incarceration occur in a Camp-level facility. Specifically, at FCI Miami or if that’s not available, FCI Pensacola.  Defense justification is based on Sestak’s “lack of criminal history, the non-violent nature of the crimes, his cooperation with the Government, his lifetime of public service, his age, education, and status as a trustee during his pretrial confinement at Northern Neck Regional Jail.”‘

We had a chance to ask a few questions from his lawyer, Gray Broughton; we wanted to know where will be the location of his incarceration.

“The Bureau of Prisons will ultimately make a determination as to where Mr. Sestak is incarcerated,” said Mr. Broughton.  The defense lawyer again cited the nonviolent nature of the crimes and Mr. Sestak’s “clean criminal history.”  Mr. Sestak should be housed in a lower security level facility, according to his lawyer and that his prior employment with the U.S. Marshal will be taken into consideration by the Bureau of Prison.
We asked about the plea deals received by Sestak and main co-conspirator Bihn Vo.   Sestak’s lawyer believed the government made the best deal it could:

Mr. Sestak received a sentence of 64 months – 32 months less than codefendant Binh Vo, who received a sentence of 96 months. The Government will end up getting roughly $5M from Binh Vo – the $3M it already seized and the $2M he has agreed to pay in the next year. Binh Vo’s money (and his wife) are all currently outside of the U.S., so the U.S. doesn’t have any control over either. It made the best deal it felt it could with Binh Vo.

We were also interested in the duration of the sentence. By our calculation, Mr. Sestak would be almost 50 by the time he completes his sentence.  Mr. Broughton, however, told us that “assuming good behavior, Mr. Sestak would serve 85% of the sentence.” He will reportedly also get credit for the 27 months he has been in jail since his arrest, towards his sentence. We’re not sure if he’ll get credit for the full 27 months. But if that’s the case, and if our math is correct, he’d be out between 2-3 years.

We asked what happened to the 500 visa applicants that Mr. Sestak had issued visas to in Vietnam. And if Mr. Sestak was asked to help track or account for the applicants who paid bribes for their visas. Mr. Broughton said, “I don’t know what happened to the visa applicants. I am not aware of any efforts by the US Government in that regard.”

Mr. Broughton also released the following statement after the sentencing:

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Michael Sestak received a fair, well-reasoned sentence today. The Court had the unenviable task of taking a multitude of opposing factors into consideration in devising Mr. Sestak’s sentence. 

As counsel for the U.S. Government readily admitted during Mr. Sestak’s sentencing hearing, Binh Vo was the mastermind of the visa fraud conspiracy. Binh Vo also had the largest pecuniary gain and will likely have millions of dollars waiting for him upon his release – along with his wife Alice Nguyen, who was able to avoid prosecution as a result of Binh Vo’s plea agreement. The Court appeared to appreciate that a sentence greater than or equal to Binh Vo’s sentence of 8 years would be fundamentally unjust for Michael Sestak, even though the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended a sentence of approximately 20 years.
 
What made things difficult for the Court in determining an appropriate sentence is that Mr. Sestak was an essential component to the conspiracy and a public servant who had taken an oath of loyalty to his Country. It was Mr. Sestak’s status as a public official and the theory that would-be criminals will think twice before committing similar crimes that caused the Court to sentence Michael Sestak to something greater than time served.
 
Ultimately, the Court balanced these countervailing factors by issuing a sentence of 64 months – 32 months less than codefendant Binh Vo, who received a sentence of 96 months.
 
Michael Sestak is a good man who made made a huge mistake. Even after his release from prison, Mr. Sestak’s actions – and the shame that follows – will haunt him forever.
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With the case concluded for all charged co-conspirators, we thought we’d asked the State Department what systemic changes had Consular Affairs instituted at USCG Ho Chi Minh City and worldwide following the Sestak incident.

The State Department, on background says this:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs takes all allegations of malfeasance seriously and continually works to improve its operations. Following any detection of vulnerabilities, CA works to improve management controls and guidance to the field. After the incident in Ho Chi Minh City, the management controls at post were comprehensively reviewed to determine what improvements could be made to their processes. As a matter of policy, we do not discuss the specifics of internal management controls.

Most of the Sestak visa cases were allegedly previous refusals. If true, we don’t quite understand how one officer could overturn so many visa refusals and issue close to 500 visas without red flags, if consular management controls worked as they should.  We wanted to know what consequences will there be for supervisors, embassy senior officials and principal officers who fail to do their required oversight on visas. And by the way, what about those who also do not follow the worldwide visa referral policy, particularly, Front Office occupants? The State Department would only say this:

As a matter of policy we do not discuss specific internal personnel actions. Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority of the U.S. government. We have zero tolerance for malfeasance. We work closely with our law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate all allegations of visa fraud. When substantiated, we seek to prosecute and punish those involved to the fullest extent of the law.

We imagined that the Bureau of Consular Affair’s Consular Integrity Division would be tasked with reviewing procedures and lessons learned on what went wrong in the Sestak case. We wanted to know if that’s the case and wanted to ask questions from the office tasked with the responsibility of minimizing a repeat of the Sestak case. Here is the official response:

The Consular Integrity Division regularly reviews incidents of malfeasance or impropriety and makes recommendations for procedural changes to reduce vulnerabilities and updates training materials for adjudicators and managers based on the lessons learned, including the case in Ho Chi Minh City. The Consular Integrity Division also does reports on the management controls at overseas posts, as well as reports that review global management controls issues, which inform CA leadership about any issues of concern.

No can do.  So far, we’ve only learned that the CID reviewed incidents of malfeasance including the Sestak case but it doesn’t tell us if it did a specific report on HCMC and what systemic changes, if any, were actually made.

We tried again. With a different question: According to in country reports, USCG Ho Chi Minh City received a letter from a jilted man in central Vietnam that helped DS crack the Sestak case. ConGen Ho Chi Minh City is one of the few consular posts that actually has a Regional Security Officer-Investigator, dedicated to visa investigations. If this case started with this reportedly jilted lover, the question then becomes how come neither the RSO-I or the internal consular management controls did not trip up the FSO accused in this case? If there was no anonymous source, would the authorities have discovered what was right under their noses?

As a matter of policy, we do not discuss the details of investigations. Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority of the U.S. government. We continually work to improve its operations, both in the field and here in Washington DC.

Ugh! Sestak was charged in May 2013. In July that year, the State Department told Fox News it was reviewing thoroughly alleged “improprieties” regarding a consular official in Guyana allegedly trading visas for money and possibly sex. In another article in 2014,  former Peace Corps, Dan Lavin,  said, “The State Department makes millions off of the poorest people in the world just by selling them the opportunity to fill out the application.” He also made the following allegation: “There are people at the embassy who can get you a visa,” Lavin said. “If you’re a Sierra Leonean, you go to a man called a ‘broker’; you then pay that ‘broker’ $10,000 and he personally gives that money to someone at the embassy who in turn gets you a visa.”  Apparently,  when asked about the accusations, a spokesperson at the U.S. embassy in Freetown declined to comment.

In any case, we also wanted to know if there were systemic changes with the State Department’s RSO-I program and how they support consular sections worldwide? Or to put it another way, we were interested on any changes Diplomatic Security had implemented in the aftermath of the Sestak case. Here is the amazing grace response, still on background:

It is the mission of DS special agents assigned as Assistant Regional Security Officer-Investigators (ARSO-I) to find fraud in the countries where they serve.

Sigh, we know that already. We thought we’d also ask about those 489 Vietnamese who got their visas under this scheme. What happened to them? Did Diplomatic Security, DHS or some other agency tracked them down?

The Bureau of Consular Affairs conducted a review of visas issued by Mr. Sestak. The Department revoked those visas that were improperly issued. If the visa holder had already travelled to the United States on the improperly issued visa, the Department of State notified the Department of Homeland Security so that agency could take action as appropriate.

We don’t know how many “improperly issued” visas were revoked. All 489?

We don’t know how many of those able to travel to the U.S. were apprehended and/or deported to Vietnam.

Frankly, we don’t really know what happened to the 489 Vietnamese nationals who paid money to get visas.

Calvin Godfrey who covered this case from Vietnam writes:

State Department investigators managed to track down and interrogate a few, though they wouldn’t say how many. The Washington DC office of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency didn’t respond to a list of questions about their efforts to track them down.

We also don’t know how much was the total proceed from this illegal enterprise. The USG talks about $9.7 million but one of the co-conspirators in an email, talked $20 million. Below via Thanh Nien News:

Prosecutors only put the gang on the hook for a $9.7 million — a “conservative estimate” they came up with by multiplying $20,000 by 489. Statement written by Hong Vo the middle of the illicit ten-month visa auction:

“I can’t believe Binh has pretty much made over $20m with this business,” she wrote to her sister, identified only as Conspirator A.V. “Slow days… are like 3 clients… and that’s like 160k-180.”

 

Then there’s the individual who purportedly started this ball rolling in Vietnam. Below excerpted from Thanh Nien News:

The State Department was quick to crow over Vo’s sentencing, but it remains deeply disingenuous about how this case came about and what it means.

“This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice,” crowed Bill Miller, the head of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in a press release generated to mark Vo’s sentencing.

The problem there is that the whole case didn’t come about through careful oversight; it came about because a sad sack from Central Vietnam loaned his pregnant wife $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and the Vos. Instead of coming home with their baby boy, she disappeared, married another man and blabbed about it on Facebook. The sad sack wrote rambling letters to the President and the State Department’s OIG trying to get his wife and money back.

That Vietnamese informant reportedly is a recipient of threats from some of the Sestak visa applicants. Poor sod. So, now, one of the co-conspirators got 7 months, another 16 months, Sestak got 5 years, Vo got 8 years,  one alleged co-conspirator was never charged, and we don’t know what happened to close to 500 visa applicants. Also, the USG gets less than half the $20 million alleged gains. It looks like, at least Vo, will not be flipping burgers when he gets out of prison.

Now life goes on.
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US Embassy London Local Employee Charged With Cyberstalking, Computer Hacking and Wire Fraud

Posted: 5:50 pm EDT

 

We posted about this case last May (see State Dept Employee Posted at US Embassy London Faces ‘Sextortion’ Charges in Georgia). On August 19, the Justice Department announced that a locally employed staff member of US Embassy London,  Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.  During the Daily Press Briefing of May 21st, the deputy spokesperson for the State Department informed the press that as of May 18th, this individual is no longer an embassy employee.

Via USDOJ | August 19, 2015:

WASHINGTON—A former locally-employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy in London was charged with engaging in a hacking and cyberstalking scheme in which, using stolen passwords, he obtained sexually explicit photographs and other personal information from victims’ e-mail and social media accounts, and threatened to share the photographs and personal information unless the victims ceded to certain demands.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia, Director Bill A. Miller of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson of the FBI’s Atlanta Division made the announcement.

Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.

“According to the indictment, Ford hacked into e-mail accounts and extorted sexually explicit images from scores of victims,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “As these allegations highlight, predators use the Internet to target innocent victims. With the help of victims and our law enforcement partners, we will find those predators and hold them accountable.”

“Ford is alleged to have hacked into hundreds of e-mail accounts and tormented women across the country, by threatening to humiliate them unless they provided him with sexually explicit photos and videos,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn. “This sadistic conduct is all the more disturbing as Ford is alleged to have used the U.S. Embassy in London as a base for his cyberstalking campaign.”

“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the Department of Justice and our other law enforcement partners to investigate allegations of crime and to bring those who commit these crimes to justice,” said Director Miller. “When a public servant in a position of trust is alleged to have committed a federal felony such as cybercrime, we vigorously investigate such claims.”

“While the allegations in this case are disturbing, it does illustrate the willingness and commitment of the FBI and its federal partners to aggressively follow those allegations wherever they take us,” said Special Agent in Charge Johnson. “The FBI will continue to provide significant resources and assets as we address complex cyber based investigations as seen here.”

According to allegations in the indictment, from January 2013 through May 2015, Ford, using various aliases that included “David Anderson” and “John Parsons,” engaged in a computer hacking and “sextortion” campaign to force numerous women to provide him with personal information and sexually explicit photographs and videos. To do so, Ford allegedly posed as a member of the fictitious “account deletion team” for a well-known e-mail service provider and sent notices to thousands of potential victims, including members of college sororities, warning them that their accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords.

Using the passwords collected from this phishing scheme, Ford allegedly hacked into hundreds of e-mail and social media accounts, stole sexually explicit photographs and personal identifying information (PII), and saved both the photographs and PII to his personal repository.

Ford then allegedly e-mailed the victims and threatened to release the photographs, which were attached to the e-mails, unless they obtained videos of “sexy girls” undressing in changing rooms at pools, gyms and clothing stores, and then sent the videos to him.

The indictment alleges that, when the victims either refused to comply or begged Ford to leave them alone, Ford responded with additional threats, including by reminding the victims that he knew where they lived. On several occasions, Ford allegedly followed through with his threats by sending sexually explicit photographs to victims’ family members and friends.

During the pendency of the alleged scheme, Ford was a civilian employee at the U.S. Embassy in London, England. He allegedly used his government-issued computer at the U.S. Embassy to conduct the phishing, hacking and cyberstalking activities.

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the FBI. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in London provided assistance. The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Mona Sedky of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Trial Attorney Jamie Perry of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kamal Ghali of the Northern District of Georgia.

Anyone who believes that they are the victim of hacking, cyberstalking, or “sextortion” should contact law enforcement. Resources regarding hacking and other cybercrimes can be found at: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/cyber.

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State Dept Responds to Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ — This Gives Me A Sad

Posted: 3:18 pm EDT

On August 16, we blogged this: Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ With 1,482 Targets Includes State Department Names.  We asked the State Department about this over the weekend. We wanted to know if the agency has been able to confirmed the affected State personnel. The State Department, on background, told us this:

We acknowledge the reports. While we will not comment on or confirm the specifics of this particular assertion, we know that malicious actors often target email accounts of government and business leaders across the United States.

We’ve also inquired about its response, or guidance to personnel , if any, and the State Department, still on background, would only say this:

We believe it is important for not only government and private sector companies but also individuals to improve their cybersecurity practices. That is why this Administration is working hard to raise our cyber defenses across the board.

Yikes! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Well, we hope they’re talking to employees behind the firewall with more substance than this two-sentence practically useless response.

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We have not been able to find anything State Department related-response/guidance on this on the public net, but DOD has some useful reminders posted on the wide-web, no logons required. The first set of slides below is actually a social networking cybersecurity awareness briefing by Diplomatic Security. The slide set appears dated a few years back (uses 2009 examples) and is not available, as far as we can tell, from state.gov. We found this set posted on the slideshare site maintained by the Defense Department. The other two set of slides are on opsec for families and one on geotagging safety for those who posts photos online. both from the DOD site.

Social Networking Cybersecurity Awareness


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Social Media Cyber Security Awareness Briefing | OPSEC For Families

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Social Media Roundup/Geotagging Safety

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Killer Air in China: Pollution Kills an Average of 4,000/day x 365 = 1,460,000

Posted: 4:18 am EDT

 

Berkeley Earth released a study showing that air pollution kills an average of 4,000 people every day in China, 17% of all China’s deaths. For 38% of the population, the average air they breathe is “unhealthy” by U.S. standards. According to the study, the most harmful pollution is PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller.  This penetrates deeply into lungs and triggers heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer and asthma.

“Beijing is only a moderate source PM 2.5 ; it receives much of its pollution from distant industrial areas, particularly Shijiazhuang, 200 miles to the southwest,” says Robert Rohde, coauthor of the paper.

“Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today,” says Richard Muller, Scientific Director of Berkeley Earth, coauthor of the paper. “When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level; every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes. It’s as if every man, women, and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour,” he said.

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Perhaps it’s time to revisit this Burn Bag submission?

“Why are we still downplaying the enormous health impact to officers and their families serving in China? Why are State MED officers saying ‘off the record’ that it is irresponsible to send anyone with children to China and yet no one will speak up via official channels?”

Embassy Beijing and the five consulates general in China house one of the largest U.S. diplomatic presences in the world (no presence in Kunming and Nanjing).  Service in China includes a hardship differential (when conditions of the environment differ substantially from environmental conditions in the continental United States) for poor air quality among other things, ranging between 10-25% of basic compensation.

According to the 2010 OIG report, more than 30 U.S. Government agencies maintain offices and personnel in China; the total staff exceeds 2,000 employees. Consulates General Guangzhou and Shanghai are as large as many mid-sized embassies, each with more than 250 employees. Consulates General Chengdu and Shenyang are smaller but serve the important western and northern parts of the country respectively. Consulate General Wuhan, opened in 2008, is staffed by one American. Mission China is a fully accompanied post; we have no numbers on how many family members, including children are present at these posts.

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The Purposeful and Targeted Cultivation of a Relationship with a Consular Officer

Posted: 1:04 am EDT

 

Former FSO Michael T. Sestak was arrested in Thailand on May 7, 2013. He was initially arraigned on September 13, 2013 and pled guilty on November 6, 2013.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on August 14 before Judge John D. Bates at the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. The USG is recommending (#303) that Mr. Sestak be sentenced to a term of 84 months of incarceration followed by 3 years of supervised release.

The USG in its memorandum in aid of sentencing writes:

The U.S. State Department is dedicated to administering its visa programs fairly and without graft or corruption. SESTAK and his co-conspirators damaged the reputation of the U.S. State Department by tainting the process and likely preventing deserving applicants from obtaining visas.

This was not a momentary lapse in judgment for any of the conspirators, including SESTAK. This was a sophisticated scheme that exploited a system and made millions of dollars after months of careful planning and substantial efforts to cover their tracks.
[….]
SESTAK has provided substantial assistance to the government from the time of his initial detention on May 9, 2013. On that date, the defendant waived his Miranda rights and agreed to be interviewed. During this initial interview, the defendant acknowledged his guilt and provided investigators with information regarding the conspiracy, including details about how the scheme actually operated and how the proceeds were laundered and moved out of Vietnam. While SESTAK was somewhat naïve and uninformed about the full extent of the conspiracy and the deep involvement of Binh Vo’s family members, he never minimized his own critical role in the scheme.

Mr. Sestak’s lawyer, Gray B. Broughton in his court filing argues that as of August 14, 2015, Mr. Sestak will have already forfeited over twenty-seven (27) months of his liberty in facilities designed for short-term detention and that a thirty-three (33) month sentence will serve as adequate punishment. “As a result of his indictment and conviction, Michael lost his job with the State Department and will never again be able to work in a similar capacity in public service. Even worse than the incarceration and job loss is Michael Sestak’s loss of reputation. The amount of shame and contrition that Michael Sestak continues to carry with him cannot be overstated. The loss of one’s profession and reputation is a severe punishment that serves the retributive goals of sentencing.” 

We will keep tabs on the sentencing set for Friday morning. Meanwhile, below is an excerpt from the court filing which is instructive, particularly, the emails exchanged by some of the conspirators.  If you’re a consular officer and somebody wants to make you an “honorary” brother, or sister, some other pretend relative, or fairy godparent, you gotta run as fast and as far away as possible!

This is what a purposeful and targeted cultivation of a relationship with a consular officer overseas looks like.  Note that this is an excerpt from the defense filing:

When Michael arrived in Vietnam, he had hit a personal low. Michael had become dissatisfied working for the State Department and had contemplated resigning at the end of his assignment to Poland. Michael had witnessed others being promoted who he believed were less deserving than he was. To make matters worse, Michael’s involvement in the fruitless search for WMD throughout Iraq shook his previously unwavering trust in the United States Government.
[…]
Most significantly, when Michael arrived in Vietnam, his personal life was totally unfulfilling. Within his first year assigned to Vietnam, Michael turned 40. Michael was unmarried, had no children, and no serious prospects for finding someone to share life together.  One aspect of being a Foreign Service Officer was that Michael changed countries every two years, usually coming back to Washington D.C. for several months in between for training. In both Spain and Poland, Michael had a girlfriend that he met towards the end of his tour. Unable to further develop these relationships in such a short amount of time, Michael arrived at his next assignment unaccompanied. It was during these transitions that Michael began to question the meaning of life and finding true happiness.
[…]
It was during this time and with this personal baggage that Michael first met Binh Vo. They met at Michael’s very first Consulate event in Vietnam in August 2010. Binh Vo and a Vietnamese businessman approached Michael and started talking. Binh Vo and Michael were approximately the same age; similarly, Binh Vo was American and well-educated.
[…]
Binh Vo slowly became Michael’s closest confident. Their friendship developed to the point where they met almost daily for meals or coffee. Binh Vo introduced Michael to his siblings, who went out of their way to include Michael in “family-only” functions. Binh Vo’s siblings referred to Michael as an honorary “Vo” brother. This circle of new-found friends constituted roughly 80% of Michael’s social activity in Vietnam. As described above, Michael was unable to develop any real friendships with American employees at the Consulate and he didn’t really have any Vietnamese friends; the few Vietnamese men that Michael met who ran in the same circles would ultimately harass Michael for visa “favors.” For the first year and four months of Michael’s time in Vietnam, Binh Vo was the only single male with whom he could communicate and socialize without reporting requirements because Binh Vo was American. Additionally, Binh Vo was always available, had a comparable level of education, and didn’t ask any favors.

Michael felt very fortunate to have stumbled upon a great relationship with Binh Vo and his family. Michael was unaware that Binh Vo and his family had targeted Michael from the onset and that every coffee, meal, family dinner, and drink was an orchestrated, results-driven event with the end goal of executing Binh Vo’s scheme to fraudulently sell non-immigrant visas to Vietnamese citizens.

As the Government stated in its sentencing memorandum for Binh Vo, Binh Vo “purposefully cultivated a relationship with Sestak in order to recruit him to approve visas for the conspiracy.” Government Mem., Doc. 289 at 8. Binh Vo exploited the weakness that Michael tried to hide, but some easily saw.
[…]

The Government’s sentencing memorandum illustrates how Binh Vo and his family preyed on Michael’s weakness and transformed him from a law-abiding officer and government official into a willing participant of the Vo’s scheme to enrich themselves:

The defendant [Binh Vo] orchestrated the visa fraud conspiracy from beginning to end. During the summer of 2011, according to electronic communications between the defendant [Binh Vo]’s sister and another co-conspirator, [Binh Vo] cultivated a relationship with [Michael] Sestak in order to get Sestak to approve visas for their family and acquaintances.

In a Google chat dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to an acquaintance:

[L]ast night we went out with this guy who works at the consulate — he’s the one that approves peoples visas… and he’s this single guy who wants to find someone to be wth [sic]… and my brother knows that – so he’s been trying to get this guy out and introduce him to people… so then later he can do him favors like … have him approve visas for people.

In an email dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to her boyfriend:

This guy who works for the US consulate here came out and joined us for dinner. He’s the guy that approves Visas for Vietnamese people to go to the United States so he’s a really good connection to have. My brother plans on using him to get [a sister-in-law’s] Visa to go to the States so [the sister-in-law] will most likely travel back with me in August . . . he just likes to people watch — he does this with the consulate guy (Mike) and they check out girls.

In a Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo again discussed the sister-in-law referenced in the above paragraph.

I applied for her Visa … so her interview is July 13th … and i told the consulate guy … so he said he’ll pull her file … but now he knows our family … so he’s more trusting … but she’ll most likely get accepted this time … because Mike will pull up her file … and he considers Binh like his best friend.

In another Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo discussed Sestak:

I have to go out now… it’s freaking 11P and Binh forgot it was Mike’s birthday… this loser guy who works for the consulate but we have to go out because he’s going to help us get [the sister-in-law’s] visa ugh

The USG in its court filing says that “the conduct that led to the present charges appears to be significantly out of character for the defendant.” It has also credited Mr. Sestak for accepting responsibility for his actions and for expression of remorse:

As far as the government is aware, prior to these offenses SESTAK had an unblemished record first as a as a police officer, then a Deputy United States Marshal, a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer, and finally as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The fact that he immediately accepted responsibility for his actions at the time of his initial detention and agreed to cooperate with the government from that day forward supports the government’s belief that the defendant is not a career criminal. The defendant’s cooperation has included numerous meetings and debriefings and significant assistance with the sale of the condominiums in Thailand that he purchased with the illegal proceeds from the scheme. Since the time of his initial detention in May 2013, the defendant has repeatedly expressed shame and genuine remorse for his actions.

Mr. Sestak faces 19-24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The USG is asking for 84 months or 7 years and three years of supervised release. Defense is asking for 33 months. We’ll have to wait until August 14 to hear Judge Bates’ decision.

We’ve posted a couple of the publicly available Sestak documents in the forum’s Document Dump for friends of the blog. Click here to login. It looks like all of Mr. Sestak’s cooperation with the government is related to the cases against the other conspirators and the disposal of properties purchased through illegal proceeds.  We want to know how can the next Sestak be prevented from happening; he maybe in the best position to answer that question. We’ve requested to do an interview with him after the sentencing.  Will keep you posted.

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Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse

Posted: 2:55 am EDT

 

We’ve previously featured Donna Scaramastra Gorman in this blog. She writes the Email From The Embassy blog and she’s out with a book! Check out Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse.

2015_07_Donna_Kindle

Click on image to see the book on Amazon

One reviewer on Amazon writes, “The first few paragraphs have me smirk, scoff and snort. It’s about time the Foreign Service has a guide that doesn’t bullsh*t. FS life is cool and fascinating but it’s not always pretty. Nor glamourous.”

Teh-heh!

By way of introduction, Donna writes this:

There is a saying in the State Department: “It depends.”[…] It’s terrifying, in a way, that the answer to every question you have about the Foreign Service can be summed up with those two little words.

That’s the State Department’s unofficial motto. We’ll entertain an alternative unofficial motto, but we don’t think you’ll find one.

Ambassador John Ordway (former ambassador to Armenia and Kazakhstan) gave the book five stars on Amazon and writes:  “With 40 years living the Foreign Service life under my belt, I found myself chuckling with fond recollection on nearly every page. Based on her years of experience trotting the globe for the U.S. State Department, Donna Gorman explains (and predicts) some of the lessons we’ve all learned — and maybe wish we had not learned. No matter where you’re coming from or where you’re headed, I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a new arsenal of useful tips for things to do, and not do, as you contemplate the Foreign Service life.”

We enjoyed reading this book. It feels familiar but also informal like the author is chatting with a friend who doesn’t yet know anything about the Foreign Service.  It is a fun read but also painful in some parts. We remember — boy, we’re old — back in 2007, Donna also lost her hearing on the right ear due to a viral infection when her family was posted in China.  Anyway, yup, cried over Chapter 27 of this book, probably the hardest part to read.  Will this book scare off people interested in the Foreign Service? Can’t tell, of course, but we’d say it would be best to know more and learn to manage one’s expectations, than know so little that one expects a charmed life abroad.

Here’s a brief bio:  Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Huffington Post, the Foreign Service Journal, the Seattle Times, Parade Magazine, the Insider’s Guide to Beijing and several other outlets.  Gorman is a Foreign Service spouse, married to a federal agent with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. They and their four children have been posted together in Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Jordan and the U.S. Gorman also spent a year as a single parent while her husband completed a tour in Baghdad.  They are currently posted in Moscow.

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Tales from a Small Planet Announces New Executive Director, Director of Social Media

Posted: 12:09 pm EDT


Tales From a Small Planet
‘s chair of the Board of Directors, Francesca Kelly and its outgoing Executive Director, Victoria Hess announced the selection of Leslie M. Jensen as its new executive director and Ásgeir Sigfússon as Director of Social Media.

Tales from a Small Planet, a 501(c)(3) registered non-profit organization and premier expat resource website, has announced the selection of Leslie M. Jensen as its new executive director. Leslie will fill the vacancy created by Victoria H. Hess, long-time Executive Director and Board Member. The selection was made following a worldwide search and selection process, during which Leslie stood out for her extensive background in sales and enthusiasm for all things expat.

Leslie’s resume includes over 10 years of sales and business development in a wide range of sectors from banking to Internet technology, and she is currently a small business owner navigating the intermittently challenging task of operating a small business while living abroad.

Tales from a Small Planet is also thrilled to announce the addition of Ásgeir Sigfússon as Director of Social Media. Outside of volunteering with Tales, Ásgeir’s paying job is with the American Foreign Service Association, where he is the Director of New Media. He has many years of experience within the Foreign Service/expat world, and also brings a deep understanding of engaging audiences through social and other online media. Ásgeir is originally from Iceland, and definitely considers himself an expat.

Talesmag.com offers expats the unique opportunity to share information about experiences abroad, expat to expat. Our Real Post Reports and Real School reports offer a “one stop shop” for the information expat families need in order to make informed decisions when choosing the next adventure.

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 Related post:
Tales From a Small Planet Needs New Blood, Now Volunteers Needed!