USCG Ho Chi Minh City’s Visa Fraud Allegations — When Silence Isn’t Golden

— By Domani Spero

We blogged previously about the allegations against Foreign Service officer Michael T. Sestak who faces charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery in an alleged visa-for-money scheme in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. See:

Last weekend, Albany’s Times Union first reported the identity of one of the alleged co-conspirators, Hong Vo, a 27-year-old U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Colorado and reportedly the sister of the unnamed co-conspirator #1.  This individual was arrested on May 8 in Denver according to the Times Union.

With the name of one of the co-conspirators now publicly known, we thought it’s only a matter of time before the dots get connected over in Vietnam. On June 3, Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre News did just that asking, Who was Michael Sestak’s No. 1 aid in visa scam?  The news outlet dug up the purported identity of two co-conspirators related to the individual arrested in Colorado,  co-conspirator #1, a U.S. national and co-conspirator #2, a Vietnamese national married to #1.  Tuoi Tre News even has a photo from the couple’s wedding in Vietnam last year. It also reported that its reporters tried to locate the couple but had been unsuccessful.

On June 4, a 29-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh, one of Hong Vo’s cousins and one of the alleged co-conspirators was arrested in Washington according to McClatchy. There is also this:

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.

The report on the warrant on a brokerage account allegedly in Anhdao Thuy Nguyen aka Alice Nguyen’s name did not indicate whether she is a U.S. national or Vietnamese.  All the co-conspirators of this alleged scheme have been identified by the local media in Vietnam.  We are only posting the names of the alleged co-conspirators officially identified in U.S. court documents at this time.

Fun times at a wedding

On June 6, Vietnam’s Thanh Nien News located and posted online a video of a lavish wedding in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012 where Mr. Sestak appeared as the groom’s best man.  Sestak appears on the video at the following marks: 0:49; 0:53; 2:32; 3:54 and at 5:16. Excerpt from Thanh Nien News:

[C]lip shows Sestak towering above the rest of the groomsmen in a tailored yellow satin tunic, which he twirled around his finger.  In the video, he accompanies [ …..] in a stretch Cadillac limousine to […] and stands holding a tray of rice wine during a traditional betrothal ceremony.  Then Sestak changed into a suit and accompanied a younger woman in a red dress to the ceremony at the Sheraton Saigon Hotel.

Thanh Nien News’ Calvin Godfrey  has some inside scoop on the Sestak arrest in Thailand in early May:

US Investigators voided Sestak’s diplomatic passport in early May, leading Thai immigration officials to arrest him in Phuket where he had purchased a number of luxury properties. State Department investigators caught up to him at an immigration detention center in Bangkok and interviewed him on tape.

It also has one of the most extensive piece yet on the people allegedly engaged in this conspiracy.  Continue reading here.

We understand from a source familiar with the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City that most of the characters in this alleged conspiracy are well connected to the US Consulate community. We’re told that at least three of the alleged co-conspirators were frequent attendees of consulate functions. In addition, Co-conspirator #1 is or was the head of one of the moving companies used by the consulate’s GSO for pack out and shipping services.  By coincidence, USCG HCMC announced last month a solicitation  for Packing and Shipping Service of personal effects.

We should note that the consulate general staff, including all agencies, is nearly two-thirds as large as the staff at Embassy Hanoi.

FSNs “Dismissed” in September 2012

This past week, Tuoi Tre News has another report with quotes from a former FSN of the Non-Immigrant Visa Section of US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently, this former 14-year staff member, who identified herself as H. was one of the local employees who were dismissed in September 2012.

A source confirmed that four FSNs were fired at USCG HCMC last year.  When asked specifically about the FSNs firing, the US Embassy in Vietnam and the Bureau of Consular affairs declined to comment.

Via Tuoi Tre News

“I personally was rewarded US$50 for discovering counterfeit school reports and house and land papers… However, in the period before Sestak returned to the US, all of us fell under suspicion,” H said.
[…]
Now that the visa fraud scheme has been uncovered, H. and her former co-workers wonder whether or not the suspicions of the American towards them have been eliminated.

Tuoi Tre News  also reported on allegations of visa wrongdoings in the consulate general’s immigrant visa section:

“It is a common thing to see Vietnamese staffs there dismissed. In some cases, many employees are fired at the same time for visa-related mistakes,” the source said.

Meanwhile, cases of visa wrongdoings involving American officers are usually handled silently, with almost no related information being disclosed, according to the source.

When Sestak left the consulate, at least eight officers from the immigrant visa department were suspended pending investigation of their alleged offenses.

We have not been able to corroborate if there is a pending investigation of the IV unit. Suffice to say that if there was enough evidence for the court, the DSS would have done its job.

So, who did the requisite adjudication reviews?

All this makes one wonder – who was reviewing the visa issuances and refusals at HCMC? Isn’t there a requisite adjudication review of nonimmigrant visa issuances and refusals?  Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has implemented a wide variety of changes that have tightened the NIV adjudication process, including but not limited to improving executive office oversight by requiring visa chief and deputy chief of mission review of visa adjudications.

9 FAM 41.121 N2.3-7 requires that supervisors review as many nonimmigrant visa (NIV) refusals as is practical, but not fewer than 20% of refusals. “Such a review is a significant management and instructional tool and is useful in maintaining the highest professional standards of adjudication. It helps ensure uniform and correct application of the law and regulations.”

Since HCMC is not an an embassy, who at the Consulate General was required to perform these adjudication reviews?

When silence isn’t golden

So far, the US Mission in Vietnam appears to go on as if nothing has happened.  On May 31, USCG HCMC posted this online: FIVE PLAY Jazz Quintet to Perform in Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang. On June 4, both posts  had this: June 4, 2013 — U.S.-Supported Campaign to Fight Intestinal Worms Reaches over 900,000 Children.

Neither the embassy in Hanoi nor the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City has posted any official statement regarding the visa fraud allegations. It did release the ‘blandest amidst a crisis’ statement  about the upcoming busy travel season:

With the busy summer student and travel season fast approaching, the U.S. Mission in Vietnam would like to remind potential Vietnamese travelers that the Department of State is committed to facilitating the legitimate travel of individuals who want to visit the United States.  At the same time, we must ensure that applicants are both qualified for the visa and do not pose a security risk to the United States.  Applicants should remember to apply early to avoid possible travel delays during this busy season.    

Already Thanh Nien News reports about The big visa scam and writes, “For years, I’ve heard vague rumors that visas could be bought or simply granted if you knew the right people….those rumors were true.”

Because that’s just what you want read all over the country without any response.

Tuoi Tre News, which is originally a publication of the Hồ Chí Minh Communist Youth Union according to Wikipedia has grown to become the largest newspaper in Vietnam also pokes Uncle Sam:

The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General in Vietnam have yet to issue any official statement about this issue despite Tuoi Tre’s efforts to obtain comment.

It is possible that the missions are trying to handle this crisis, but one of the most basic lessons on crisis management is transparency and a quick response to queries, which the U.S. has preached about.

And it is necessary to answer questions about the Sestak scandal, even though it could simply be an isolated case.

Last weekend and Monday were U.S. holidays, but it is quite puzzling that the embassy and the consulate have not responded to any phone calls, emails, or faxes from Tuoi Tre since Tuesday.

We cannot expect embassy/consulate officials to speak publicly about the specific allegations against Mr. Sestak since this is now a court case.  But everyone is talking about the big elephant in the Vietnamese living room, and the US Mission has put itself out of the conversation. What is wrong about putting out a statement about the rule of law, about presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and  about how seriously the USG tackles visa malfeasance wherever it happens or whoever commits it?

Some of these cases can last a year or two in the U.S. court system; this is not going to end soon.  By not releasing an official statement, by not acknowledging there is/was a problem — it looks bad from this end, and possibly worse from the the eyes of visa applicants who had to shell $160 non-refundable fees for 2-minute interviews.  We’re sure the mission does not want to be perceived as sweeping  allegations under the rug or being indifferent to the legitimate interests and concerns of its paying clients.

The simple fact is — this is one case where silence isn’t golden.

(‘_’)

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