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

Posted: 1:04 am EDT
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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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Binh Tang Vo Gets 8 Years For Conspiring With Former U.S. Consulate Official in Visa Scheme

Posted: 3:42 pm EDT
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We have previously blogged about the Sestak visa scheme in this blog (see Michael T. Sestak Visa Scandal: Two Co-Conspirators Sentenced to 10 Months and 16 MonthsFSO Michael T. Sestak Pleads Guilty in Visa Fraud-Bribery Case, Faces 19-24 Years in Prison). Last month, the Justice Department announced that Binh Tang Vo, a U.S. citizen and one of the alleged conspirators pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison plus forfeiture of nearly $5.1 million. Court records indicate that Michaell Sestak’s sentencing had been rescheduled for this month.

Via USDOJ:

Man Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison for Conspiring With Former U.S. Consulate Official in Visa Scheme | Vietnam-Based Scheme Yielded Millions of Dollars in Bribes

WASHINGTON  Binh Tang Vo, 41, an American citizen who had been living in Vietnam, was sentenced today 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, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Vincent H. Cohen, Jr. and Bill A. Miller, Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).

Vo pled guilty to the charges in March 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The plea agreement, which was contingent upon the Court’s approval, called for a prison sentence between six and eight years, as well as forfeiture of nearly $5.1 million. The Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Vo accordingly today.

Vo was arrested on Sept. 24, 2013, at Washington Dulles International Airport and has been held without bond ever since.

According to a statement of facts in support of his guilty plea, Vo conspired with co-defendant Michael Sestak and others to obtain visas to the United States for Vietnamese citizens.  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.

As outlined in the statement of facts, Vo and Sestak conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens to advertise the scheme and recruit customers. Co-conspirators reached out to people in Vietnam and the United States and advertised the scheme by creating a website and by spreading the word through emails and telephone calls.  The conspirators told potential customers that once the customers obtained a visa from the scheme, they could disappear, get married or return to Vietnam and be assured of receiving visas in the future.

Vo and his co-conspirators received biographical information and photographs from customers and assisted them with their visa applications.  Upon submitting an application, the applicant would receive an appointment at the Consulate, be interviewed by Sestak, and approved for a visa. Applicants or their families generally paid between $30,000 and $60,000 per visa.  Nearly 500 fraudulent visas were issued as a result of the conspiracy.

Applicants paid for their visas in Vietnam, or by routing money to co-conspirators in the United States.  Vo admitted to receiving millions of dollars for arranging for Sestak to approve the visas.  He ultimately moved some of the money out of Vietnam by using money launderers to move funds through off-shore banks.  Co-conspirators also had money laundered through off-shore banks to bank accounts in the United States.

“Binh Vo conspired with a corrupt U.S. Consulate Official to collect bribes in exchange for issuing visas that allowed nearly 500 Vietnamese nationals to enter the United States,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Cohen.  “Binh Vo and his family members recruited bribe-paying customers by telling them that once in the United States they could disappear or get married.  He collected millions of dollars in bribes by undermining the integrity of the process used to screen foreign visitors to our country.  This prison sentence demonstrates our commitment to preserving the integrity of a process that is critical to our national security.”

“The U.S. visa is one of the most coveted travel documents in the world. Foreign nationals who acquire visas fraudulently to enter the United States could do so in order to carry out any number of criminal activities, including terrorism,” said Director Miller. “This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice.”

Sestak, 44, pled guilty in November 2013 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 is scheduled to be sentenced July 1, 2015.

Hong Vo, 29, an American citizen, and Truc Thanh Huynh, 31, a Vietnamese citizen, also pled guilty to conspiring with Sestak and Binh Vo.  Hong Vo is Binh Vo’s sister, and Truc Thanh Huynh is Binh Vo’s cousin. Hong Vo was sentenced in March 2014 to seven months in prison and three months of home detention. Truc Tranh Huynh was sentenced in February 2014 to 16 months of incarceration.

According to the statement of facts, fraudulent visas granted by Sestak were connected to an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address controlled by Hong Vo. Huynh allegedly participated in the visa scheme by obtaining documents necessary for the visa applications, collecting money and providing model questions and answers for visa applicants.  Sestak also allegedly approved a visa for Huynh to the United States, the application for which was submitted by the IP address controlled by Hong Vo.

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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Michael T. Sestak Visa Scandal: Two Co-Conspirators Sentenced to 10 Months and 16 Months

— Domani Spero

On November 6, 2013, USDOJ announced that Michael T. Sestak, the former Nonimmigrant Visa Section Chief at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City had pleaded guilty to “receiving more than $3 million in bribes” in exchange for U.S. visas.  Two women were also charged in the visa fraud-bribery conspiracy:  Hong Vo, 27, an American citizen, and Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen.  On September 24, 2013, US authorities arrested Binh Vo, a U.S. citizen and another of the remaining alleged co-conspirators at the Washington Dulles International Airport.  The last one of the alleged co-conspirators, Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, 30, a Vietnamese citizen, and Bihn Vo’s wife remains at large.

On Febraury 4, 2014, court records indicate that the case of ANHDAO T. NGUYEN was “directly reassigned to Calendar Committee as she has been a fugitive for more than 90 days.”

On March 7, 2014, BINH TANG VO was arraigned on Counts 1ss,2ss-14ss,15ss-27ss, and 28ss before Judge John D. Bates. Plea of NOT GUILTY was entered by BINH TANG VO as to all Counts of the Superseding Information.

In the case of  Vietnamese national Truc Tranh Huynh, court records indicate that sentencing was held onFebruary 21, 2014 before Judge John D. Bates as to Ms. Huynh (5) on Count 23s. Defendant was sentenced to Sixteen (16) months of incarceration and Twelve (12) months of Supervised Release; Special Assessment of $100. Defendant committed; commitment issued.  She previously entered a plea agreement in October last year.

According to court records, defendant Hong Vo also pleaded guilty to one count of a criminal information arising out of her participation in a wide spread visa fraud scheme.  The Government’s memorandum in aid of sentencing filed by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr. on the case of Ms. Vo says in part:

 The defendant’s participation in this multi-million dollar scheme implicated both the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and, thus, warrants an appropriately strong sentence. The need for proper deterrence is especially important where, as here, individuals could be drawn into a scheme in the hope of procuring a financial windfall. A 16 month sentence would have a real deterrent effect and will serve as a clear warning to anyone tempted to defraud the U.S. State Department’s visa-issuing procedures for financial gain.

Court records indicate that this case had also been resolved:

Sentencing held on 3/7/2014 as to HONG CHAU VO (4), before Judge John D. Bates on Count 1ss: Defendant sentenced to Ten (10) months split sentence: Seven (7) and a half months of incarceration and Two (2) and a half months of Home Detention; Thirty (30) months of Supervised Release. Special Assessment of $100.00. All counts of Indictment and the Superseding Indictment are dismissed as to this defendant. Defendant remains in 3rd Party custody.

On March 10, 2014, defendant Michael T. Sestak submitted a status report on the disposition of his real properties in Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand as part of his plea agreement:

Since the last report filed on January 24, 2014, Mr. Sestak has engaged Mulvana, DeAngeli & Associates, to act as his agent in Thailand. Mr. Sestak is in the process of authorizing this firm to act on his behalf. […] Attorneys at Mulvana, DeAngeli & Associates in Thailand have met with potential appraisers for the Phuket and Bangkok properties. Attorneys at Mulvana, DeAngeli & Associates have also spoken with potential brokers in Phuket and have several meetings planned this week with several additional brokers.

Case title: USA v. SESTAK et al; Magistrate judge case number: 1:13-mj-00463-AK

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FSO Michael T. Sestak Pleads Guilty in Visa Fraud-Bribery Case, Faces 19-24 Years in Prison

— Domani Spero

On November 6, USDOJ announced that Michael T. Sestak, the former Nonimmigrant Visa Section Chief at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City had pleaded guilty to “receiving more than $3 million in bribes” in exchange for U.S. visas.  The Government alleged that the visa scheme had netted more than $9 million in bribes (see related posts below) and that Mr. Sestak had personally received over $3 million in proceeds of the conspiracy, which he laundered through China into Thailand. No sentencing date has been set but Mr. Sestak faces 19-24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Related posts:

Via USDOJ:

WASHINGTON  A U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Michael T. Sestak, 42, pled guilty today to conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering 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.

The guilty plea, which took place in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was announced by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service Director Gregory B. Starr.

Sestak pled guilty before the Honorable John D. Bates 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. No sentencing date was set. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the applicable range for the offenses is 235 to 293 months in prison.

Under the plea agreement, Sestak has 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. He also has agreed to cooperate in a continuing federal investigation.

“Today Michael Sestak admitted taking millions of dollars in bribes to issue visas to allow nearly 500 foreign nationals to enter the United States,” said U.S. Attorney Machen.  “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.  His motivation for betraying his oath of office was cold, hard cash, as he personally received more than $3 million in this visa-for-cash scam, much of which he funneled into the purchase of nine properties in Thailand.  Mr. Sestak has now accepted responsibility for his conduct and is cooperating with federal law enforcement in this continuing investigation.”

“The Department of State became aware of potential visa improprieties in Vietnam and immediately referred the allegations to the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) to investigate, said Director Starr, of the Diplomatic Security Service. “DS worked collaboratively with the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs to identify irregularities in the visa process which allowed agents and consular officials to pursue investigative leads and develop the evidence which led to Mr. Sestak’s guilty plea today.  This case demonstrates how cooperation with DS partners in the region allowed the Department of Justice to pursue charges where Vietnamese citizens were victimized by individuals guided by greed.”

Sestak was arrested on May 13, 2013, and has been in custody ever since. Four others have been charged with taking part in the conspiracy. They include Binh Vo, 39, and his sister, Hong Vo, 27, both American citizens who had been living in Vietnam; Binh Vo’s wife, Anhdao Dao Nguyen, 30, a Vietnamese citizen; and Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen.

Hong Vo was arrested in May 2013 and Huynh was arrested the following month. Binh Vo was arrested in September 2013. Nguyen remains at large, and a warrant has been issued for her arrest.  Huynh pled guilty on Oct. 16, 2013, to one count of visa fraud and is awaiting sentencing. Binh Vo and Hong Vo have pled not guilty to charges and are held without bond pending trial.

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 employed at the State Department, Sestak held a sensitive position.

In pleading guilty, Sestak admitted that he and Binh 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 $9,780,000.  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.

Looking forward to hearing what happens to Mr. Sestak’s alleged co-conspirators.  And may his cooperation with the continuing investigation results in tracking down all the fraudulent visa cases he issued and subsequent deportation of those involved.

Also, I don’t think we’ve ever seen the maximum penalty of 24 years among the rotten FSO cases we’ve reviewed.  One of the more notorious visa fraud scandal involving an FSO was that of Thomas Patrick Carroll, a former vice consul at US Embassy Georgetown in Guyana who was arrested in 2000.  He was arrested for selling 800 visas at reportedly US$10,000 – US$15,000 each.  Mr. Carroll did not invest his ill gotten wealth in real estate but according to reports kept some of it in gold bars.  The court originally sentenced Mr. Carroll to 21 years imprisonment in 2002. The prison term was reduced on appeal to 11 years and he was released from prison this past summer.

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USDOJ: AmCit Binh Vo, Alleged Co-Conspirator in Michael Sestak Visa Scandal Arrested at Dulles Airport

— By Domani Spero

We have previously blogged about the visa fraud allegations at the Consulate General in Ho Chi Min City involving FSO Michael T. Sestak and four other alleged co-conspirators.  Court records indicate that an arraignment and motion hearing were held on September 13, 2013 with a status conference scheduled for all three defendants (Sestak, Truc Thanh Huynh and  Hong Chau Vo) for October 18, 2013 at 10:30 AM in Courtroom 30A before Judge John D. Bates.

Related posts:

Meanwhile, on September 24, 2013, US authorities arrested Binh Vo, a U.S. citizen and another of the remaining alleged co-conspirators at the Washington Dulles International Airport.  At this time, only one of the alleged co-conspirators, Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, 30, a Vietnamese citizen, and Bihn Vo’s wife remains at large.  According to USDOJ, a warrant has been issued for her arrest.  Thanh Nien News describes Anhdao Thuy Nguyen as a “bright Vietnamese beauty queen” who “studied for an MBA at the University of Texas in Austin.”  

 

Via USDOJ:

American Citizen Arrested and Charged With Bribery, Visa Fraud and Conspiracy -Scheme Allegedly Yielded Millions of Dollars in Bribes

WASHINGTON Binh Vo, 39, an American citizen living in Vietnam, has been arrested and charged with bribery, visa fraud and conspiracy to commit those offenses as well as to defraud the United States, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Director Gregory B. Starr announced today.

Vo appeared this afternoon before the Honorable Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where a criminal indictment was pending against him. He was arrested on Sept. 24, 2013, at Washington Dulles International Airport. Magistrate Judge Facciola ordered that he remain in custody pending further court proceedings.

According to the indictment, Vo conspired with co-defendant Michael Sestak and others to obtain visas to the United States for Vietnamese citizens.  Sestak, 42, 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.

According to the indictment, Vo and Sestak conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens who worked to recruit customers – or to recruit other recruiters – to the visa scheme. Co-conspirators reached out to people in Vietnam and the United States and advertised the scheme by creating a website and by spreading the word through emails and telephone calls.

According to the indictment, co-conspirators assisted visa applicants with their applications and prepared them for their consular interviews.  Upon submitting an application, the applicants would receive an appointment at the Consulate, be interviewed by Sestak, and approved for a visa. Applicants or their families paid Vo between $20,000 and $70,000 per visa.

Applicants paid for their visas in Vietnam, or by routing money to co-conspirators in the United States.  According to affidavits filed in this case, Vo received millions of dollars for arranging for Sestak to approve the visas.  He ultimately moved some of the money out of Vietnam by using money launderers through off-shore banks.  Co-conspirators also had money laundered through off-shore banks to bank accounts in the United States.

To date, the investigation has seized over $2 million from conspirators’ accounts in the United States.

Three others have been charged in the scheme.They are Hong Vo, 27, an American citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen, and Anhdao Dao Nguyen, 30, a Vietnamese citizen, all of whom are charged with conspiring with Sestak and Binh Vo.  Hong Vo is Binh Vo’s sister.  She allegedly assisted with the recruitment of visa applicants and communicated with others about the payment for the fraudulent visas.

According to charging documents, fraudulent visas granted by Sestak were connected to an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address controlled by Hong Vo. Huynh allegedly participated in the visa scheme by obtaining documents necessary for the visa applications, collecting money and providing model questions and answers for visa applicants.  Sestak also allegedly approved a visa for Huynh to the United States, the application for which was submitted by the IP address controlled by Hong Vo.  Anhdao Thuy Nguyen is Binh Vo’s wife.  She allegedly assisted with recruiting applicants and laundering funds during the course of the conspiracy.

Sestak and Hong Vo were arrested in May 2013 and Huynh was arrested the following month. All remain held without bond pending further proceedings.  Nguyen remains at large, and a warrant has been issued for her arrest.

An indictment is merely an allegation that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brenda J. Johnson, Christopher Kavanaugh, and Mona N. Sahaf of the National Security Section and Catherine K. Connelly of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

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Michael Sestak Visa Scandal: USG to seek forfeiture money judgment of at least $9.7 Million

— By Domani Spero

This is an update of the Sestak Visa Scandal that’s winding its way through the court system.  The publicly available Superseding Indictment posted on July 9, 2013 now includes the names of all five defendants — three U.S. citizens and two residents and nationals of Vietnam.  For previous posts, see below:

The August court hearing for Sestak, Hong Vo and Truc Thanh Huynh was rescheduled for 9/13/2013 at 02:00 PM in Courtroom 30A before Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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Excerpt from the Superseding Indictment:

From at least in or around February 2012, continuing through at least in or around December 2012, in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the United States and within the District of Columbia and elsewhere, and pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Sections 3237 and 3238, within the venue of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the defendants SESTAK, BINH VO, ALICE NGUYEN, HONG VO, and TRUC HUYNH, a joint offender who was arrested in the District of Columbia, did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree, together and with persons whose identities are known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to commit offenses against the United States, that is, bribery of a public official, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 201(b)(2), and visa fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1546(a), and to defraud the United States Government by interfering with and obstructing a lawful government function, that is, the unbiased and disinterested issuance of visas by the Department of State to non-United States citizens, by deceit, craft, trickery, and dishonest means, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.

Forfeiture Allegations:

Upon conviction of the offense alleged in Count One of this Indictment, defendants MICHAEL T. SESTAK, BINH TANG VO, ANHDAO T. NGUYEN, also known as Alice Nguyen, also known as Anhdao Thuy Vo, also known as Thuy Anh Dao Nguyen, also known as Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, also known as Dao Thuy Anh Nguyen, HONG CHAU VO, and TRUC THANH HUYNH, shall forfeit to the United States any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from or is traceable to the proceeds obtained directly or indirectly from the commission of the offense, and any property, real or personal, which was used to facilitate the commission of the offense, or was intended to be used to facilitate the offense, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 982(a)(6), and any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the offense, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 981(a)(1)(C) and 28 U.S.C. Section 2461(c). The property subject to forfeiture includes: Any and all funds and securities seized from Scottrade account #58490015, held in the name of ANHDAO THUY NGUYEN.

The indictment includes descriptions of “transactions” where  individuals, some with multiple visa denials were allegedly issued visas by Mr. Sestak.  The government alleges that defendant Binh Vo informed defendant Sestak of the identity of each foreign national who had agreed to pay money in exchange for obtaining a visa, before the foreign national appeared at the Consulate for a visa interview.

Below is a video posted by Thanh Nien Daily of the December 2012 wedding of alleged conspirators, Vietnamese national Anhdao Thuy Nguyen and U.S.citizen Binh Tang Vo with Sestak as one of the groomsmen.  The Thanh Nien Daily reported that the wedding cost $300,000.  More wedding photos on FB here.

The indictment says that the “United States will seek a forfeiture money judgment against the defendants in the amount of at least $9,780,000.”

The indictment also seeks  forfeiture of “any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from or is traceable to the proceeds obtained directly or indirectly from the commission of the offense, and any property, real or personal, which was used to facilitate the commission of the offense, or was intended to be used to facilitate the offense, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 982(a)(6). The United States will seek a forfeiture money judgment against the defendants equal to the value of any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to this offense.”

If any of the property cannot be located, or has been transferred or sold, or deposited with, a third party; or has been placed beyond the jurisdiction of the court, the indictment seeks, upon conviction of defendants, forfeiture “to the United States any other property of the defendants, up to the value of the property described above, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. Section 853(p).”

Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre reported that Binh Tang Vo and his wife Anhdao Thuy Nguyen last entered Vietnam on April 7, 2012.  Thanh Nien Daily also reported that the publication of their names has sparked widespread speculation as to their whereabouts but that the couple has disappeared from public sight.

👀

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.

(‘_’)

USDOJ: FSO Michael Todd Sestak Charged With Conspiracy to Defraud and Conspiracy to Commit Bribery and Visa Fraud

We have blogged previously about this case:

On June 4, the Department of Justice released the following statement:

U.S. Foreign Service Officer Charged With Conspiracy To Defraud the United States and to Commit Bribery and Visa Fraud – Scheme Allegedly Yielded Millions of Dollars in Bribes-

WASHINGTON – A U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Michael Todd Sestak, 41, has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Director Gregory B. Starr announced today.

Sestak appeared this afternoon before the Honorable Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He was arrested on May 13, 2013, in California and had been ordered held without bond following a hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He was removed to the District of Columbia, where the criminal complaint, dated May 6, 2013, was filed against him. Magistrate Judge Robinson ordered that he remain in custody pending further court proceedings.

According to the government’s evidence, 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.

The investigation revealed that, beginning sometime in or around March 2012, Sestak agreed to approve visas to the United States for a fee.  According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, he conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens who worked to recruit customers – or to recruit other recruiters – to the visa scheme. Co-conspirators reached out to people in Vietnam and the United States and advertised a money-back guarantee for a visa to the United States.  They particularly advertised that they could obtain visas for people who would not be able to obtain a visa on their own, such as people who had been previously denied or refused entry into the U.S.  They encouraged customers with the idea that they could overstay their visas and disappear in the United States.

The affidavit alleges that co-conspirators assisted visa applicants with their applications and prepared them for their consular interviews.  Upon submitting an application, the applicants would receive an appointment at the Consulate, be interviewed by Sestak, and approved for a visa.  Applicants or their families paid between $20,000 and $70,000 per visa.

Applicants paid for their visas in Vietnam, or by routing money to co-conspirators in the United States.  According to the affidavit, Sestak received several million dollars in bribes in exchange for approving the visas.  He ultimately moved the money out of Vietnam by using money launderers through off-shore banks.  Co-conspirators also had money laundered through off-shore banks to bank accounts in the United States, the affidavit alleges.

To date, the investigation has seized over $2 million from a co-conspirator’s investment account in the United States.

Two women have been charged in the scheme.They are Hong Vo, 27, an American citizen, and Truc Tranh Huynh, 29, a Vietnamese citizen, who are charged with conspiring with Sestak and others. Vo allegedly assisted with the recruitment of visa applicants and communicated with others about the payment for the fraudulent visas. According to charging documents, fraudulent visas granted by Sestak were connected to an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address controlled by Vo. Huynh allegedly participated in the visa scheme by obtaining documents necessary for the visa applications, collecting money and providing model questions and answers for visa applicants.  Sestak also allegedly approved a visa for Huynh to the United States, the application for which was submitted by the IP address controlled by Vo.

Vo was recently arrested in Denver and is being held there while awaiting removal to the District of Columbia. Huynh was arrested June 3, 2013, and appeared today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She remains held without bond pending further proceedings.

Charges contained in criminal complaints are merely allegations that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brenda J. Johnson and Mona N. Sahaf of the National Security Section and Catherine K. Connelly of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section.

13-194

 

Original statement is available online here.

(._.)