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.

* * *

Advertisements

US Embassy Guyana Rumor Galore: Another Visa Scandal Ready to Break?

— By Domani Spero

 

There is another alleged visa shenanigans involving a visa officer making the news.  The Guyana Observer reported on July 4 that a US embassy official in Georgetown, Guyana is alleged to have issued “dozens of visas to Guyanese women for sex” and as well as reportedly being “accused of selling visas to many corrupt businessmen, drug dealers etc. for as low as US$15,000.”

The Kaieteur News of Georgetown, Guyana also reported on July 4 that the Foreign Service Officer was “a frequent patron of a popular Middle Street restaurant where he would meet with brokers, some of whom were prominent local businessmen.”

Large numbers are being thrown about – from reportedly $10,000 for a new visa issuance to$30,000-$40,000 for alleged re-issuance of visas previously cancelled or revoked.

According to AFP, its government sources said that the officer had been removed from his post, two months before his tour of duty was due to end in September 2013.

The Daily Caller picked up the news and described the report as this: “A State Department officer has been accused of selling visas for sex and money in what may have been a massive human trafficking operation” citing two Guyanese journalists.  One of the Guyanese journalists says that “We became aware of a scam going on at the embassy when many legitimate visa applicants were being turned down.”

Many applicants who are turned down for visas think they are legitimate and ought to get visas, so that in itself does not hold much water as an argument that there is a scam going on.   Issuance, cancellation, revocation of visas all have electronic trails since no one does paper and pen adjudications anymore. If there is anything there, the investigators will find it. More importantly, the money trails, because you got to have a way to take all that alleged dirty money out of the country.  Any witness to the sex for visa exchange should contact Diplomatic Security here.

The DC and Guyanese news outlets have identified and published a photo of the FSO. We have chosen not to name the FSO here since he has not been charged with a crime.

A source did tell this blog that the person in question in Guyana (we don’t have a confirmed name) a first tour FSO, was sent back to Washington during the investigation, and is currently working in a regional bureau pending the criminal investigation.

Local media published a statement from the US Embassy in Georgetown (not posted online):

“The Department of State is aware of allegations of improprieties relating to a Consular Officer formerly assigned to Georgetown, Guyana.

The Department takes all allegations of misconduct by employees seriously. We are reviewing the matter thoroughly. If the allegations are substantiated, we will work with the relevant authorities to hold anyone involved accountable.”

We have previously blogged about the US Embassy in Georgetown (See US Embassy Guyana: Is this a consequence of midlevel staffing/experience gaps?).

The embassy is headed by D. Brent Hardt who was sworn in as Ambassador to the Cooperative Republic of Guyana on August 19, 2011. According to the embassy website, the “Chief, Consular Affairs” is Mark O’Connors.

On the same week that FSO Michael T. Sestak (See USDOJ:  FSO Michael Todd Sestak Charged With Conspiracy to Defraud and Conspiracy to Commit Bribery and Visa Fraud) was formally charged charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud at the District Court of the District of Columbia, we heard that former FSO, Thomas Patrick Carroll was released from a Chicago federal prison.  Mr. Carroll, a former vice consul at US Embassy Georgetown in Guyana who notably kept some of his ill gotten assets in gold bars, was arrested in 2000.  He was originally sentenced to 21 years imprisonment in 2002, a term that was subsequently reduced on appeal.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that visa fraud is big news in Guyana.  The Thomas Carroll incident was huge, huge news over there. There is an ebook written about it — The Thomas Carroll Affair: A Journey through the Cottage Industry of Illegal Immigration by David Casavis available at amazon.com. We have not read the book but  according to News Source Guyana,  “the author considers it one of his best works.”

We will have a follow-up post if there are further developments on this case.

👀