Former FSO Michael Sestak Sentenced to 64 Months In Visas For Dollars Scheme

Posted: 1:41 pm EDT
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Former FSO Michael T. Sestak was sentenced today 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. The sentence is under the 84 months asked by the USG but over the 33 months pled for by the defense. This concludes the over two-year case that started with the former consular officer’s arrest in the spring of 2013.  Binh Tang Vo and his sister, Hong Vo, both American citizens have also been convicted and sentenced respectively to 8 years and 7 months in prison.  The Vos’ cousin, Truc Tranh Huynh, a Vietnamese citizen was previously sentenced to 16 months of incarceration. Vo’s wife, one of the alleged co-conspirators was not charged. We will have a follow-up post later. Video below of the Vos wedding via Thanh Nien Daily:

Via USDOJ: Former U.S. Consulate Official Sentenced to 64 Months in Prison for Receiving Over $3 Million in Bribes in Exchange for Visas | Vietnam-Based Scheme Yielded Millions of Dollars in Bribes. 

A former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Michael T. Sestak, 44, was sentenced today to 64 months in prison on federal charges in a scheme in which he accepted more than $3 million in bribes to process visas for non-immigrants seeking entry to the United States, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Vincent H. Cohen, Jr. of the District of Columbia and Director Bill A. Miller of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service.

Sestak pleaded guilty on Nov. 6, 2013, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud and to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity.  He was sentenced by the Honorable John D. Bates. Following his prison term, Sestak will be placed on three years of supervised release.

Under the plea agreement, Sestak agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation and the prosecution of other conspirators.  He also agreed to the forfeiture of the proceeds of the crimes, which includes the sale of nine properties that he purchased in Thailand with his ill-gotten gains.

Three others have pled guilty to charges in the case.

“As a Foreign Service Officer, Michael Sestak should have been upholding his responsibilities to the United States, not illegally cashing in by collecting over $3 million in bribes to short-circuit our visa process,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Cohen.  “Because of this defendant’s selfish greed, nearly 500 foreign nationals were able to enter the United States without the proper screening.  This sentence reflects the seriousness of his corrupt conduct.”

“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our other law enforcement partners to investigate allegations of crime related to passport and visa fraud 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 passport fraud, we vigorously investigate claims of corruption.”

Sestak, a former police officer and Deputy U.S. Marshal, was arrested on May 13, 2013, and has been in custody ever since.  According to the government’s evidence, he and his co-conspirators in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and elsewhere, created and/or submitted approximately 500 fraudulent applications for non-immigrant visas to the United States.  The overwhelming majority of these applications were subsequently approved.

The others who have pled guilty include Binh Tang Vo; his sister, Hong Vo, both American citizens who had been living in Vietnam; and their cousin, Truc Tranh Huynh, a Vietnamese citizen.

Binh Tang Vo, 41, was sentenced in July 2015 to eight years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud, bribery of a public official and conspiracy to commit money laundering.  His plea agreement also called for forfeiture of nearly $5.1 million.  Hong Vo, 29, was sentenced in March 2014 to seven months in prison and three months of home detention.  Truc Tranh Huynh, 31, was sentenced in February 2014 to 16 months of incarceration.

According to the government’s evidence, the criminal activity took place while Sestak was the Non-Immigrant Visa Chief in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from August 2010 to September 2012.  His responsibilities included reviewing visa applications, conducting in-person interviews of visa applicants and issuing visas when appropriate.  While at the State Department, Sestak held a sensitive position.

In pleading guilty, Sestak admitted that he and Binh Tang Vo met in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010 and began a personal friendship.  They ultimately came up with a plan to obtain money in exchange for facilitating the approval of non-immigrant visas from Vietnam to the United States.  Sestak conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens who worked to recruit customers to the visa scheme.  Before they appeared at the consulate for visa interviews, Sestak would be informed of the identities of foreign nationals who agreed to pay money in exchange for obtaining visas.  He then attempted to issue a visa to each foreign national who had agreed to pay for obtaining a visa, often disregarding the veracity of the information on the application.

Sestak admitted that between February 2012 and September 2012, he caused visas to be approved for people whose applications were part of the scheme.  Payments made by applicants to the conspirators in exchange for visas ranged from $15,000 to $70,000.  Many of the individuals who received visas had been previously denied visas for a variety of reasons.

The entire scheme generated at least $9.78 million.  Of this, Sestak personally received over $3 million in proceeds of the conspiracy, which he laundered through China into Thailand.  In an attempt to hide the illegal proceeds of the scheme, Sestak purchased nine real estate properties in Thailand worth over $3 million.  As part of his plea agreement, Sestak agreed to sell these properties and forfeit the proceeds in order to satisfy a portion of the money judgment of at least $6 million that will be entered against him.

The case was investigated and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brenda J. Johnson, Alessio D. Evangelista of the National Security Section and Catherine K. Connelly and Jennifer Ambuehl of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, as well former Assistant U.S Attorneys Christopher Kavanaugh and Mona N. Sahaf.

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This $10 million bribery case seems to have fallen off the radar screen of U.S. media. Extra reading below from Calvin Godfrey who appears to be the only one still covering this case for Vietnamese news.

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U.S. flag goes up in Cuba: “What matters is this – that we all belong to the sea between us.”

Posted: 4:37 am EDT
Updated: 1:06 pm EDT
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Maine poet Richard Blanco who was born to a Cuban exile family and read at President Obama’s second inauguration will read a poem commemorating the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana on August 14. Its title is “Matters Of The Sea” or “Cosas Del Mar,” and its first line goes, “The sea doesn’t matter. What matters is this – that we all belong to the sea between us.” Looking forward to reading it in Spanish!
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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
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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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