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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Sestak Criminal Complaint Details Alleged Visa For Dollars Scheme: Refusal Rates, Emails, and Money Trails

— By Domani Spero

McClatchy’s Michael Doyle reported last week about Foreign Service officer Michael T. Sestak who faces charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery in an alleged visa-for-money scheme.  We blogged about it here (see USCG Ho Chi Minh: Former Visa Chief Faces Charges of Conspiracy to Commit Visa Fraud and Bribery).  This has also been covered widely by the local press in Vietnam with Toui Tre News running daily installments from the criminal complaint.  (Update. On June 1, a Times Union report includes the name of one of the alleged co-conspirator based in Denver, Colorado and some career background of Michael T. Sestak prior to State:  “Sestak left the Albany police force in 1999 to become a U.S. marshal, according to police officers who know him. He joined the Navy in 2001, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and serving as an intelligence officer during tours that included assignments in the Pacific, Europe and Washington, D.C., according to military records.”).

We reached out to the US Embassy in Vietnam where officials refused to comment.  Public Affairs Officer Christopher Hodges writes, “We have no comment but would instead refer you to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington DC.  You can reach them at 202 252 6933.”   Similarly, the Bureau of Consular Affairs also declined to comment saying, “[W]e do not have any comment on topics related to Mr. Sestak’s case.” However, in an emailed response to an inquiry from Thanh Nien in Vietnam, Mr. Hodges reportedly said that they will seek to prosecute and punish those people involved to the fullest extent of the law. “Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority of the U.S. government. We have zero tolerance for malfeasance,” said Mr. Hodges, quoted in the local press.

The criminal complaint had been unsealed in early May but to-date, there has been no statement from USDOJ or the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia.  According to court records, Mr. Sestak was remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshal in California for removal to the District of Columbia on May 14, 2013.   (Update.  On May 31, Tuoi Tre News says its reporter contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for information on the legal proceedings against Michael Sestak and was told by Bill Miller, who is in charge of press inquiries, that Sestak is still detained in California while waiting to be transferred to Washington D.C. A D.C. court is making arrangements for Sestak’s trial, Miller said).

Based on the criminal complaint, this case appears to have originated from a letter received in July 2012 from a “confidential source” that claimed a “facilitator” was soliciting bribes from applicants in exchange for the issuance a U.S. visas (#8 on the complaint). The source reportedly included names, dates of births, and photographs of seven individuals alleged to have procured visas through this scheme.

The government has over 90 items listed on the affidavit executed by DSS agent Simon Dinits in support of the criminal complaint and arrest warrant dated May 8, 2013 signed by Judge Alan Kay of the District Court of the District of Columbia.

The affidavit executed by DSS Agent Dinits alleged that “sometime in or around March 2012, while working as a Consular Officer in the Non-Immigrant Visa (“NIV”) Unit of the United States Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (the Consulate”), Vietnam, SESTAK conspired with others to solicit bribes from visa applicants in exchange for which he facilitated the approval of their visas through the Consulate.”

It also asserts that there is “probable cause to believe that Sestak has violated Title 18 USC 371 by conspiring to defraud the United States and to commit offenses against the United States , that is, visa fraud in violation of 18 USC 1546 and bribery in violation of 18 USC 201(b)(I) and (b)(2).”

The complaint noted that between August 2010 and September 2012, Sestak worked in the Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV) Unit of the Consular Section of HCMC. He was the NIV chief and supervised approximately four other consular officers.  The recent OIG report on HCMC which praised the nonimmigrant visa work flow as “efficient” indicates that in addition to four officers, the NIV chief also supervised 16 local Vietnamese employees.

So what did Diplomatic Security looked at? It seemed like they dug up quite a bit:

1.  Refusal Rates:

DSS reviewed the adjudication statistics and found that from May 1, 2012 – September 6, 2012, the HCMC approved 20,362 nonimmigrant visas (NIVs) and refused 11,024 NIVs, an overall refusal rate of 35.1%.  The complaint notes that Sestak, during the same period approved 5,040 NIVs and refused 449 NIVs for a personal refusal rate of 8.17%.  Sestak’s refusal rate went from 30.3% in January to 6.4% in May,11.3% in June, 9.35% in July, 3.82% in August and 6.67% in September which was his last month at post. (#11 in criminal complaint).

2.  Tainted IP address

425 NIV applications had been accessed from two IP address. Sestak conducted initial interview for 404 of the 419 applicants and approved visas for 386 NIVs.  DSS traced one IP address using a Virtual Private Network to  an ISP in California, used to access all 408 NIV applications, and belong to one of the alleged co-conspirators with address in Denver, Colorado.  The complaint notes that two other IP addresses were assigned to ISPs located in Vietnam and the US could not serve legal process to receive subscriber information for the relevant IP address logins.

3. Search Warrants on Gmail and Yahoo Emails

DSS executed search warrants to Gmail and Yahoo email accounts of alleged conspirators, including the emails of a co-conspirator’s father, sister in-law, and others as well as the email of Sestak’s sister in Yulee, Florida. The investigators also looked at Google chats between Sestak and alleged co-conspirator and unearthed 11 shell email accounts used to received biographic info for visa applicants.

4. Money Trails and Wire Transfers

DSS review of financial records between June 20, 2012 and September 11, 2012, indicates 35 money transfers totaling approximately $3,238,991.00 allegedly made to Sestak Thailand Bank Account; majority of the transfers came from Bank of China Beijing (#44).  There was an alleged $600,000 transfer to Sestak Thailand Bank Acct (#46) and an email with transaction details of approximately $1.46 million in transfers allegedly to Sestak Thai Bank account (#47).  Over half a dozen banks used in the transactions are mentioned in the complaint: Wells Fargo; Bank of Hawaii; Sestak’s Thailand Bank Account at Siam Commercial Bank PLC in Bangkok, Thailand; Bank of China Beijing; Amegy Bank of Texas; HSBC; Vietcombank.

5. Real Estate Purchases:

The complaint alleged that in mid-2012, Sestak entered agreements with a Thai real estate company to purchase four properties in Phuket, Thailand, including furnishing, for approximately $1,231,440.00 (#52). The complaint also alleged that in December 2012, Sestak entered agreements with a Thai real estate company to purchase five additional properties in Bangkok, Thailand for an approximate total of $2,103,360.00

6. Friends with Bad Benefits –#33 of the complaint includes this:

“In a chat dated June 1, 2012, co-conspirator 3 stated “last 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 with ….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.”

7. Statements on SF-86 Questionnaire and Interview

The complaint alleged that Sestak did not reveal his foreign bank account or foreign property purchases on his security background investigation questionnaire.  It also alleged that at the time he submitted the SF-86 questionnaire, he had already opened the Sestak Thailand Bank Account and had entered agreements to purchase four properties in Thailand.

The criminal complaint says that Sestak had a recorded interview with DSS agents in WashDC on October 19, 2012 in connection with their investigation of Vietnamese employees at the consulate general.   In that interview he was reportedly asked “Are you aware of any Americans that came to a lot of money when you were there, kind of unexpectedly, not in line with their regular salary? Sestak replied, “I can’t think of anybody that had anything.”

The allegations amounting to nearly $4 million dollars in a span of six months may be a new record but we should point out that the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.  While the allegations look damning, they are just allegations at this point until proven true in court.

We’re waiting for the DOJ statement and working on a follow-up post.

(ú_ú)

USCG Ho Chi Minh: Former Visa Chief Faces Charges of Conspiracy to Commit Visa Fraud and Bribery

This is not the kind of news you want to end the week, but here it is.   The former NIV Chief of USCG Ho Chi Minh City  Michael T. Sestak is facing charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery.  McClatchy reports that the 42-year old FSO was arrested in Southern California about a week ago and held without bail. We have not been able to locate a copy of the unsealed complaint.  The promotion list published in afsa.org indicates that Mr. Sestak was promoted from an FS-03 to FS-02 in 2011.

Via Michael Doyle of McClatchy News

In a previously undisclosed criminal complaint, Foreign Service officer Michael T. Sestak faces charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery in an alleged scheme that investigators say spanned several countries. In some cases, investigators say, desperate Vietnamese paid up to $70,000 each for visas granting legal entry to the United States.

The “co-conspirators” advertised that the charge would be between $50,000 and $70,000 per visa but also that they’d sometimes charge less, State Department investigator Simon Dinits said in an affidavit. “They also encouraged recruiters to raise the price and keep the amount they charged over the established rate as their own commission,” the affidavit said.

Investigators say the alleged conspiracy occurred while Sestak was handling non-immigrant visas in the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Sestak served in the consulate until last September, when he left in preparation for active-duty service with the Navy. By then, investigators say, an informant had tipped them to the alleged visa scheme.
[…]
From May 1, 2012, to Sept. 6, investigators say, the consulate received 31,386 non-immigrant visa applications and rejected 35.1 percent of them. During the same period, Sestak handled 5,489 visa applications and rejected only 8.2 percent of them, according to investigators.
[…]
“This opportunity will only last for a few more months, and after that it’s over,” one alleged co-conspirator wrote in a July 5 email quoted by Dinits.

Continue reading, Foreign Service officer made millions in visa-for-money scam, feds charge

— DS