What’s Next For Former FSO Michael Sestak, Plus Some Unanswered Questions

Posted: 2:05 pm EDT
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On August 14, 2015, former FSO Michael T. Sestak was sentenced 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, Vietnam.

The Preliminary Consent Order of Forfeiture filed in the District Court of Columbia includes forfeiture of a) “any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the offense;” and  b) “a money judgment equal to the value of any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the offense.”

The consent order identifies 1) any and all funds and securities seized from Scottrade Account #XXXX001S, held in the name of Anhdao Thuy Nguyen (“Scottrade Account”); and 2) $198,199.13 seized from the Department of Treasury from the Treasury Suspense Account under Seizure Number 38l30010—O1 (“Treasury Account”); and 3) a money judgment in the amount of at least $6,021,440.58, for which the defendant (Sestak) is jointly and severally liable with any co-conspirators ordered to pay a forfeiture money judgment as a result of a conviction for either offense.

In the plea agreement, Sestak agreed to sell nine properties in Thailand and that the proceeds would be paid to the United
States to satisfy a portion of the money judgment entered against him. The consent order also notes that “upon entry of a forfeiture order, Fed. R. Crim. P. 32.2(b)(3) authorizes the Attorney General or a designee to conduct any discovery the Court considers proper in identifying, locating, or disposing of property subject to forfeiture.”

In a pre-sentencing filing,  Mr. Sestak requested that any term of incarceration occur in a Camp-level facility. Specifically, at FCI Miami or if that’s not available, FCI Pensacola.  Defense justification is based on Sestak’s “lack of criminal history, the non-violent nature of the crimes, his cooperation with the Government, his lifetime of public service, his age, education, and status as a trustee during his pretrial confinement at Northern Neck Regional Jail.”‘

We had a chance to ask a few questions from his lawyer, Gray Broughton; we wanted to know where will be the location of his incarceration.

“The Bureau of Prisons will ultimately make a determination as to where Mr. Sestak is incarcerated,” said Mr. Broughton.  The defense lawyer again cited the nonviolent nature of the crimes and Mr. Sestak’s “clean criminal history.”  Mr. Sestak should be housed in a lower security level facility, according to his lawyer and that his prior employment with the U.S. Marshal will be taken into consideration by the Bureau of Prison.
We asked about the plea deals received by Sestak and main co-conspirator Bihn Vo.   Sestak’s lawyer believed the government made the best deal it could:

Mr. Sestak received a sentence of 64 months – 32 months less than codefendant Binh Vo, who received a sentence of 96 months. The Government will end up getting roughly $5M from Binh Vo – the $3M it already seized and the $2M he has agreed to pay in the next year. Binh Vo’s money (and his wife) are all currently outside of the U.S., so the U.S. doesn’t have any control over either. It made the best deal it felt it could with Binh Vo.

We were also interested in the duration of the sentence. By our calculation, Mr. Sestak would be almost 50 by the time he completes his sentence.  Mr. Broughton, however, told us that “assuming good behavior, Mr. Sestak would serve 85% of the sentence.” He will reportedly also get credit for the 27 months he has been in jail since his arrest, towards his sentence. We’re not sure if he’ll get credit for the full 27 months. But if that’s the case, and if our math is correct, he’d be out between 2-3 years.

We asked what happened to the 500 visa applicants that Mr. Sestak had issued visas to in Vietnam. And if Mr. Sestak was asked to help track or account for the applicants who paid bribes for their visas. Mr. Broughton said, “I don’t know what happened to the visa applicants. I am not aware of any efforts by the US Government in that regard.”

Mr. Broughton also released the following statement after the sentencing:

**
Michael Sestak received a fair, well-reasoned sentence today. The Court had the unenviable task of taking a multitude of opposing factors into consideration in devising Mr. Sestak’s sentence. 

As counsel for the U.S. Government readily admitted during Mr. Sestak’s sentencing hearing, Binh Vo was the mastermind of the visa fraud conspiracy. Binh Vo also had the largest pecuniary gain and will likely have millions of dollars waiting for him upon his release – along with his wife Alice Nguyen, who was able to avoid prosecution as a result of Binh Vo’s plea agreement. The Court appeared to appreciate that a sentence greater than or equal to Binh Vo’s sentence of 8 years would be fundamentally unjust for Michael Sestak, even though the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended a sentence of approximately 20 years.
 
What made things difficult for the Court in determining an appropriate sentence is that Mr. Sestak was an essential component to the conspiracy and a public servant who had taken an oath of loyalty to his Country. It was Mr. Sestak’s status as a public official and the theory that would-be criminals will think twice before committing similar crimes that caused the Court to sentence Michael Sestak to something greater than time served.
 
Ultimately, the Court balanced these countervailing factors by issuing a sentence of 64 months – 32 months less than codefendant Binh Vo, who received a sentence of 96 months.
 
Michael Sestak is a good man who made made a huge mistake. Even after his release from prison, Mr. Sestak’s actions – and the shame that follows – will haunt him forever.
**

 

With the case concluded for all charged co-conspirators, we thought we’d asked the State Department what systemic changes had Consular Affairs instituted at USCG Ho Chi Minh City and worldwide following the Sestak incident.

The State Department, on background says this:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs takes all allegations of malfeasance seriously and continually works to improve its operations. Following any detection of vulnerabilities, CA works to improve management controls and guidance to the field. After the incident in Ho Chi Minh City, the management controls at post were comprehensively reviewed to determine what improvements could be made to their processes. As a matter of policy, we do not discuss the specifics of internal management controls.

Most of the Sestak visa cases were allegedly previous refusals. If true, we don’t quite understand how one officer could overturn so many visa refusals and issue close to 500 visas without red flags, if consular management controls worked as they should.  We wanted to know what consequences will there be for supervisors, embassy senior officials and principal officers who fail to do their required oversight on visas. And by the way, what about those who also do not follow the worldwide visa referral policy, particularly, Front Office occupants? The State Department would only say this:

As a matter of policy we do not discuss specific internal personnel actions. Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority of the U.S. government. We have zero tolerance for malfeasance. We work closely with our law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate all allegations of visa fraud. When substantiated, we seek to prosecute and punish those involved to the fullest extent of the law.

We imagined that the Bureau of Consular Affair’s Consular Integrity Division would be tasked with reviewing procedures and lessons learned on what went wrong in the Sestak case. We wanted to know if that’s the case and wanted to ask questions from the office tasked with the responsibility of minimizing a repeat of the Sestak case. Here is the official response:

The Consular Integrity Division regularly reviews incidents of malfeasance or impropriety and makes recommendations for procedural changes to reduce vulnerabilities and updates training materials for adjudicators and managers based on the lessons learned, including the case in Ho Chi Minh City. The Consular Integrity Division also does reports on the management controls at overseas posts, as well as reports that review global management controls issues, which inform CA leadership about any issues of concern.

No can do.  So far, we’ve only learned that the CID reviewed incidents of malfeasance including the Sestak case but it doesn’t tell us if it did a specific report on HCMC and what systemic changes, if any, were actually made.

We tried again. With a different question: According to in country reports, USCG Ho Chi Minh City received a letter from a jilted man in central Vietnam that helped DS crack the Sestak case. ConGen Ho Chi Minh City is one of the few consular posts that actually has a Regional Security Officer-Investigator, dedicated to visa investigations. If this case started with this reportedly jilted lover, the question then becomes how come neither the RSO-I or the internal consular management controls did not trip up the FSO accused in this case? If there was no anonymous source, would the authorities have discovered what was right under their noses?

As a matter of policy, we do not discuss the details of investigations. Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority of the U.S. government. We continually work to improve its operations, both in the field and here in Washington DC.

Ugh! Sestak was charged in May 2013. In July that year, the State Department told Fox News it was reviewing thoroughly alleged “improprieties” regarding a consular official in Guyana allegedly trading visas for money and possibly sex. In another article in 2014,  former Peace Corps, Dan Lavin,  said, “The State Department makes millions off of the poorest people in the world just by selling them the opportunity to fill out the application.” He also made the following allegation: “There are people at the embassy who can get you a visa,” Lavin said. “If you’re a Sierra Leonean, you go to a man called a ‘broker’; you then pay that ‘broker’ $10,000 and he personally gives that money to someone at the embassy who in turn gets you a visa.”  Apparently,  when asked about the accusations, a spokesperson at the U.S. embassy in Freetown declined to comment.

In any case, we also wanted to know if there were systemic changes with the State Department’s RSO-I program and how they support consular sections worldwide? Or to put it another way, we were interested on any changes Diplomatic Security had implemented in the aftermath of the Sestak case. Here is the amazing grace response, still on background:

It is the mission of DS special agents assigned as Assistant Regional Security Officer-Investigators (ARSO-I) to find fraud in the countries where they serve.

Sigh, we know that already. We thought we’d also ask about those 489 Vietnamese who got their visas under this scheme. What happened to them? Did Diplomatic Security, DHS or some other agency tracked them down?

The Bureau of Consular Affairs conducted a review of visas issued by Mr. Sestak. The Department revoked those visas that were improperly issued. If the visa holder had already travelled to the United States on the improperly issued visa, the Department of State notified the Department of Homeland Security so that agency could take action as appropriate.

We don’t know how many “improperly issued” visas were revoked. All 489?

We don’t know how many of those able to travel to the U.S. were apprehended and/or deported to Vietnam.

Frankly, we don’t really know what happened to the 489 Vietnamese nationals who paid money to get visas.

Calvin Godfrey who covered this case from Vietnam writes:

State Department investigators managed to track down and interrogate a few, though they wouldn’t say how many. The Washington DC office of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency didn’t respond to a list of questions about their efforts to track them down.

We also don’t know how much was the total proceed from this illegal enterprise. The USG talks about $9.7 million but one of the co-conspirators in an email, talked $20 million. Below via Thanh Nien News:

Prosecutors only put the gang on the hook for a $9.7 million — a “conservative estimate” they came up with by multiplying $20,000 by 489. Statement written by Hong Vo the middle of the illicit ten-month visa auction:

“I can’t believe Binh has pretty much made over $20m with this business,” she wrote to her sister, identified only as Conspirator A.V. “Slow days… are like 3 clients… and that’s like 160k-180.”

 

Then there’s the individual who purportedly started this ball rolling in Vietnam. Below excerpted from Thanh Nien News:

The State Department was quick to crow over Vo’s sentencing, but it remains deeply disingenuous about how this case came about and what it means.

“This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice,” crowed Bill Miller, the head of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in a press release generated to mark Vo’s sentencing.

The problem there is that the whole case didn’t come about through careful oversight; it came about because a sad sack from Central Vietnam loaned his pregnant wife $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and the Vos. Instead of coming home with their baby boy, she disappeared, married another man and blabbed about it on Facebook. The sad sack wrote rambling letters to the President and the State Department’s OIG trying to get his wife and money back.

That Vietnamese informant reportedly is a recipient of threats from some of the Sestak visa applicants. Poor sod. So, now, one of the co-conspirators got 7 months, another 16 months, Sestak got 5 years, Vo got 8 years,  one alleged co-conspirator was never charged, and we don’t know what happened to close to 500 visa applicants. Also, the USG gets less than half the $20 million alleged gains. It looks like, at least Vo, will not be flipping burgers when he gets out of prison.

Now life goes on.
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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.

* * *

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.

👀

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

US Embassy Guyana: Is this the consequence of midlevel staffing/experience gaps?

On Thursday, July 18, three persons were killed when police opened fire on protestors in Linden opposed to the increase in electricity rates. Linden is the second largest town in Guyana after Georgetown, and the capital of the Upper Demerara-Berbice region. According to local reports, police said they were forced to fire pellets into the crowd because many of them were robbing persons and burning vehicles.

Map extracted from 2008 OIG report of US Embassy Guyana

Also on Thursday, the following message was posted on US Embassy Guyana’s Facebook page:

Statement by Diplomatic Representatives of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America on the Deaths of Protesters in Linden

Georgetown, Guyana – The diplomatic representatives of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America wish to express their profound regret at the tragic loss of life that took place July 18th in Linden. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives or suffered injury.

We appeal to all parties and stakeholders to work together in a spirit of national unity to prevent any further violence and to resolve current tensions through an open and inclusive dialogue.

The same local report says that “…. the United States embassy in an internal memo told staff to stay away from Linden, the scene of “violent protests,” and be careful when moving about in Georgetown where there are “ongoing protests.”

One of our readers named anon y mouse, noting the absence of a Warden Message on the Embassy website, or a Travel Alert on travel.state.gov. asked if there is a “double standard” here.

We will crib here from our old blog post on Bogota about the “no double standard policy:”

The State Department has what is called the “no double standard” policy  in its travel information program. 7 FAM dictates that if State shares important security threat information including criminal information with the official U.S. community, such information should also be made available to the non-official U.S. community.  Selective notification is against the law.  The regs also says that “If a post issues information to its employees about potentially dangerous situations, it should evaluate whether the potential danger could also affect private U.S. citizens/U.S. non-citizen nationals living in or traveling through the affected area.”

And actually 7 FAM 053.2-2 (e) below has very clear reminders which says:

“Remember that if you conclude you should warn your personnel or any U.S. Government employees, whether permanently stationed or on temporary duty abroad, about a security threat, your request for Department approval to warn post personnel should also include a request to share that same information with the non-official U.S. community under the “no double standard” policy (see 7 FAM 052). The policy applies whether the information is shared with U.S. Government employees in town meetings, in post newsletters, by e-mail, or on the telephone. The threat or warning information might include information about locations within the host country including hotels, restaurants, entertainment spots, places of worship, tourist sites, etc. Unless the threat is specific to a particular institution for reasons peculiar to that institution, you should not list names of specific locations, including names of hotels or restaurants, for which threat or warning information is available. You should also refrain from developing lists of “approved” hotels. In providing such lists to the community, you may actually increase the risk that perpetrators could change the target, thus increasing the risk to U.S. citizens/nationals who may be relying on such lists. (underlined for emphasis).

We checked the embassy’s website and social media presence.  There was that message on Facebook from the diplomatic reps, including the United States, and there is a tweet referencing it but there is no emergency or warden message on the embassy’s website or FB/Twitter or in the embassy blog, The Demerara Diaries.

Via FB

Via Twitter

Via US Embassy Guyana website, screen grab of July 21, 2012

But on July 19, the US Embassy actually issued an Emergency Message to US citizens. But you won’t know that from checking the embassy’s website or visiting its social media accounts.  Why? Because it’s not there.  We actually found it on the Diplomatic Security-run OSAC website here only because we knew what we were looking for.

Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Demonstrations in Linden (Guyana)
Political Violence
Western Hemisphere > Guyana > Georgetown
7/19/2012
This message advises U.S. citizens in Guyana to exercise caution when in public due to violent protests in Linden and ongoing protests in Georgetown in response to a rise in electricity rates. The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens in Guyana to limit your movement in and around Georgetown and Linden and to avoid unnecessary travel throughout the country.

The recent protests in Linden resulted in property damage and loss of life.  Protests are being held July 19 at Eve Leary Police Headquarters in response to the events in Linden.  Protests in Georgetown are ongoing and may extend to other locations.

The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to avoid large public gatherings. Be aware of traffic delays and increased pedestrian presence in the potential problem areas listed above. Note that this list of problem areas is not comprehensive, and you should exercise caution throughout Guyana.

Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable.  You should avoid them if at all possible.  Be alert and aware of your surroundings and pay attention to what the local news media has to say.

Really, how useful are those social media platforms?  To our last count, the embassy has two Facebook pages (one solely for the consular section). It has a separate photo gallery, streaming videos and is on Flickr, Twitter and Tumblr.  And not a single one of these outlets has the link to the emergency message, that it’s own consular section presumably put out on July 19.  Would a US citizen in Guyana know to look at the OSAC website for the embassy’s emergency message? (Note: As of July 22, 3:26 AM EST, no relevant update on the embassy’s website/social media fronts).

In addition to that, Guyanese Online published what it says is an internal memo to embassy employees, part of which says:

“Regional Security Officer (RSO) advises to limit your exposure in and around Georgetown to necessary travel. Travel to Linden is prohibited until further notice,” states the document.

There are a couple of things at issue here: 1) the Emergency Message published via OSAC and the internal memo from RSO are not anywhere on the embassy’s online presence; could be due to IT issues (like webmaster on leave, no back up) or internet availability (we’re stretching here but we don’t know how good or bad is the accessibility in country). The message after it’s cleared must go to the PA or IT section, or the social media ninjas and whoever is in charge of maintaining the website.  We won’t call this a double standard since the Emergency Message actually went out; the fact that it’s not on the embassy’s website or related outlets is more like somebody dropping the ball …. because it happens.

2) the Emergency Message did not include the fact that embassy employees were prohibited from traveling to Linden until further notice. This is the more troubling part, because the regs are darn clear. And it appears that in this case, the embassy told official Americans they are prohibited from traveling to Linden, but did not/not share this information with the non-official American community in its Emergency Message.  But then we saw this:

Via US Embassy Guyana website, screen capture of July 21, 2012

We can’t help but wonder if this is all a simple oversight/folks dropping the ball into the ocean or if this is an example of the consequences of the Foreign Service midlevel staffing and experience gaps reported by GSO  GAO recently?  (see Foreign Service Staffing Gaps, and Oh, Diplomacy 3.0 Hiring Initiative to Conclude in FY2023).

The last time the OIG visited the US Embassy Guyana was in 2008. It is one of those posts described as “previously neglected” as a “back water” post – among the last in line to receive support” according to the 2008 report.

At the time of that inspection, the report said that “it is regrettable the Department has not done a better job of ensuring that some experienced consular cone officers are regularly assigned to this hard-to-fill post. Its consular section was (maybe still is) staffed by “an assortment of Civil Service officers on excursion tours, out-of-cone and entry-level Foreign Service officers, and a consular associate.”

The 2008 inspection also reported the following details:

  • “the regional security office has had a rotation of 15 temporary duty regional security officers before the arrival of the incumbent.”
  • “Numerous temporary-duty employees have been sent from Wash­ington to fill gaps, at least partially, but this leads to a lack of continuity in positions where there is not a strong corps of LE staff to provide historical perspective.”
  • “28 LE staff was terminated in the past two years,” but the report points out that “none was terminated for malfeasance, notwithstanding a his­tory of such problems that included a previous consular officer.”

Staffing at the embassy was reportedly “chronically short,” despite being accorded a 25 percent hardship allowance and and official designation as a hard-to-fill post.

As of July 15, 2012, Guyana is a 25% hardship and 25% COLA assignment.

We’d like to think that something happened since 2008 to fix the problems pointed out in the 2008 report of US Embassy Guyana. But — Guyana remains one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and unless we missed it, the country has not moved into a “front water” priority post for the State Department.

And seriously? — with AIP posts sucking out the oxygen from practically every part of the U.S. Foreign Service, who has a spare oxygen tank for a post like Georgetown?

But – despite all that we can’t give post an easy pass.  Given that the protection of US citizens is one of the embassy’s most important responsibility overseas or so they say, the American Citizen Services chief (or if there isn’t one, the Consular chief) should have been working hand in glove with the embassy’s Security Officer. And if neither the consular section nor the security office is well versed on the “no double standard” policy — surely somebody at the front office has this drummed into their heads?

We just hope that no US citizen becomes a victim at the next riots in Linden.

Update@ 11:55 AM PST
Peter Van Buren
, a Consular Officer before he was put on deep ice, points out another possible explanation:

Let’s imagine inside the Embassy the usual fight about saying anything bad about the host nation. RSO and/or CONs knows of the danger and wants to warn people, which will trigger the “no double standard” rule. POL and/or the Front Office are worried about bilateral relations. So, the “compromise” is to release the info publicly, sort of, in a way that gets it out there enough for CYA but not enough to create a stir.
I saw this more than once in my own career. RSO or CONs used the channel it controls (newsletter) to disseminate info and the Front Office blocked it from the channel it controls (web site).
Ah yes, that familiar bureaucratic battle.  Although more often than not, we think that battle occurs in relation to the issuance of the Consular Information Sheet or the Travel Warning.  Warden/emergency messages are not exempted from that battle, of course, but we don’t know if that’s what happened here.  If it is, then that’s when you need a Consular Officer, one with balls who will stand up to POL and/or the front office on the mat of 7 FAM 050.

Domani Spero