Snapshot: Top Immigrant Visa Issuance Posts FY 2012

Via travel.state.gov:

Via travel.state.gov

Via travel.state.gov

Via travel.state.gov

Via travel.state.gov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

(._.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Conservative Estimate” of Proceeds from Alleged Visas for Sale Scheme “At Least $10 Million”

McClatchy ’s Michael Doyle has a follow up report on Michael T. Sestak, the Foreign Service officer accused of selling hundreds of visas to residents of Vietnam.  Mr. Sestak made his first appearance in D.C. court on Tuesday according to McClatchy. Excerpt below:

 In a 10-minute session Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson informed Sestak that he faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery. For now, Robinson declined to release Sestak from jail and held him without bond.

Seldom looking up from the table, and dressed in tan pants and a gray T-shirt, Sestak sat silently next to his attorney during the session. In addition to agreeing on a preliminary hearing date of June 14, Sestak’s legal counsel, J. Michael Hannon, filed a bond review motion to be heard Thursday.

Prosecutors said in a May 22 court document that “a conservative estimate” of the proceeds from the alleged conspiracy was “at least $10 million,” although officials added that “approximately $5 million in proceeds remains unaccounted for” and is thought to be in Vietnam.

McClatchy also reports that officials have arrested a 29-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh in Washington, as one of the alleged co-conspirators.   In addition, Diplomatic Security Service has reportedly filed a warrant to seize money in a brokerage account of another alleged co-conspirators, Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, also known as Alice Nguyen claiming it came from visa fraud.

The name of that alleged co-conspirator may actually be Nguyen Thuy Anh Dao, already reported in Vietnamese press as the spouse of co-conspirator #1.

Continue reading, Michael T. Sestak, accused of selling visas, held without bond.

We have previously blogged about this in Sestak Criminal Complaint Details Alleged Visa For Dollars Scheme: Refusal Rates, Emails, and Money Trails.  Tuoi Tre News in Vietnam has covered this case with great zeal (see links below).

(o_O)

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

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

 

The Rushford Report on the “Consul General’s Candidacy as the Next Ambassador to Vietnam”

On April 15, Greg Rushford of The Rushford Report published this piece on How (Not) to Become a U.S. Ambassador.  The article refers to the U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, career Foreign Service officer An T. Le. Our U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam is David Shear who arrived at post in August 2011. Under typical appointments,  Ambassador Shear, as a career diplomat appointed to his position by President Obama, is expected to serve until the summer of 2014.

The reporter is citing email exchange concerning this “candidacy” —  this might be the first time a career FSO is shown as allegedly conducting in Rushford’s words “essentially a clandestine political pressure campaign aimed [at] securing a White House nomination.”  If you want to look at this kindly, one might say, the FSO demonstrates long term preparation and foresight for a vacancy that is expected to occur in 15 months.

The report here also includes the list of “Friends & Supporters of Consul General An T. Le in Ho Chi Minh City” that was reportedly presented by California businessman David Duong to President Obama at a Democratic Party fundraiser during the president’s April 3-4, 2013 appearances in the San Francisco Bay area. Quick excerpt:

Le wants to become the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Toward that end, the consul general has been working behind the scenes since at least last July with a network of Vietnamese-American allies, some of whom have political and business connections in both Washington and Hanoi. Although Le has urged his supporters to try to drum up congressional support, the main target of the lobbying campaign is the man who would make the nomination: President Barack Obama.
[…]
The e-mails reveal that as he has sought to advance what Le has repeatedly referred to as his “candidacy,” the consul general has not been merely a passive observer. Le has participated in drafting and editing various letters of support and introduction. Before California business Duong presented the letter to Obama on April 3, Le advised his ally to correct a typo. Upon being informed by Duong that the letter had been delivered to Obama, Le expressed his gratitude in another e-mail. Writing on his iPad, the consul general related how “I appreciate” the efforts of such good “friends in advancing my candidacy.”
[…]
It is highly unusual — perhaps unprecedented —  for an active member of the U.S. foreign service to run what is essentially a clandestine political pressure campaign aimed securing a White House nomination for an ambassadorship to an important country.

Oh, dear.  Continue reading How (Not) to Become a U.S. Ambassador.

According to its website, The Rushford Report was launched by veteran Washington investigative reporter Greg Rushford in January 1995.

A February 2012 OIG report on US Mission Vietnam had quite a lot to say about Mr. Le’s work at USCG Ho Chi Minh. See State/OIG: US Mission Vietnam — One Mission, One Team, Well, Sort Of.

— DS

US Embassy Vietnam: Congressman Calls for Firing of Ambassador Shear ‘Cuz Embassy Not An Island of Freedom

On July 9th, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who represents the 10th District  since 1981 (and is up for reelection) in northern Virginia, the home to many Vietnamese-Americans has called for the firing of the US Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear.  This is not the first time, he has done this, of course.  In May this year, Congressman Wolf had also called for Ambassador Shear’s sacking.

If we fire our diplomats every time a congressman is upset with a career diplomat, we won’t have anyone left to run our embassies.

According to Congressman Wolf’s office, Ambassador David Shear should be removed because he has “repeatedly failed to advocate for human rights and speak out for the voiceless in Vietnam.” Wolf recommended that Shear be replaced by a Vietnamese-American.

In his letter to President Obama, Congressman Wolf was particularly upset by 1) Ambassador Shear’s “failure to invite more dissidents and human rights activists” to the U.S. Embassy for a July 4 celebration after promising that he would; and 2) was disappointed in Ambassador Shear’s handling of the case of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietanmese-American democracy activist and U.S. citizen presently being held by the Vietnamese government.

Below is an excerpt from Congressman Wolf’s letter to the WH with some photos we’ve dug up online from the US Embassy Vietnam:

I have long believed that U.S. embassies should be islands of freedom – especially in repressive countries like Vietnam. Under Ambassador Shear’s leadership it didn’t appear that the U.S. embassy in Hanoi was embracing this important task. But even more troubling is the fact that Dr. Quan is an American citizen, and yet there appeared to be little urgency to securing his release.

In speaking by phone with Ambassador Shear following the hearing I expressed my concerns and urged him to host a July 4th celebration at the embassy, where the guest list was comprised of religious freedom and democracy activists in Vietnam. I stressed that he should fling open the doors of the embassy and invite Buddhist monks and nuns, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, Internet bloggers and democracy activists. Such was the custom during the Reagan Administration, especially in the Soviet Union. This practice sent a strong message that America stood with those who stand for basic human rights. In many cases it afforded these individuals protection from future harassment and even imprisonment.

From left to right: Clara Davis-Long, DRL DAS Kathleen Fitzpatrick, AAL Suzan Johnson Cooks, Archbishop Nguyen Van Nhon, U.S. Ambassador David Shear, and Father Hung.
(Photo from US Embassy Hanoi/Flickr)

Ambassador Shear said that he intended to honor this request. Following my conversation with him I received the enclosed letter from the department indicating that, “Ambassador Shear continues to engage with civil society advocates, promoters of rule-of-law, and democracy activists and will welcome them to the Embassy’s July 4th celebration.” I took Ambassador Shear at his word and in fact shared this correspondence with members of the Vietnamese Diaspora community in the U.S., several of whom were greatly encouraged by this development.

Late last week it was brought to my attention that many of the most prominent democracy and human rights activists in Vietnam were not invited to the event. These reports seemed starkly at odds with the assurances I had personally received from Ambassador Shear. I called him directly this morning to find out if the embassy had invited the dissidents as had been agreed upon. His response was appalling. He said that he had invited a few civil society activists but then said that he needed to maintain a “balance.”

From left to righ: Clara Davis-Long, IRF Desk Officer, DRL DAS Kathleen Fitzpatrick, U.S. Ambassador David Shear, Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook and Dr. Nguyen Thanh Xuan, Vice Chair of the Committee for Religious Affairs
(Photo from US Embassy Hanoi/Flickr)

I wonder how many prominent democracy and human rights activists flooded the 4th of July celebrations at our embassies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or China? And is Congressman Wolf upset with those as well?

Who would have thought that the 4th of July could be such a perilous event? And how many is “more” really, that seems like an important number.

I can understand Ambassador Shear’s point about “balance” but also appreciate the mission discretion over these invitees. Vietnam is run by a repressive, communist regime. The embassy has to deal with the government in place, not the government it wished were in place. That said, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the democracy or human right activists who shows up at this function could be put in peril just by the perception that they are working with the Americans. Does Congressman Wolf really want this kind of showy camera moment outreach during our national day or should we not prefer that the embassy have a more substantial engagement beyond the bright lights?

SON LA, Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Nov. 15, 2011) – Dr. Joshua Peck, center, a forensic anthropologist from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, briefs Ambassador David Shear, right, at a remote recovery site. Five recovery teams are searching in the Thai Nguyen, Bac Giang, Lang Son, Son La, and Thanh Hoa provinces at aircraft crash and burial sites for six Americans unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. The ultimate goal of JPAC, and of the agencies involved in returning America’s heroes home, is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of Americans lost during the nation’s past conflicts. (DoD photo by Mr. Jason Kaye, U.S. Navy/Released)

Just a side note here — the 2012 IG report tells us that the Government of Vietnam requires advance permission to conduct programs outside U.S. Government premises, controls the print and electronic media, and sometimes limits access to Internet sites. The US Embassy in Vietnam has been creative in using Vietnamese alumni of U.S. exchange programs as they are able to operate outside the restrictions placed on American speakers.  These alumni can more easily engage with wider audiences as credible, informed communicators about their American experience, something the USG speakers are unable to do. That’s how restrictive is the operating environment. Heck, even acquiring land for a much-needed, new embassy compound there have stalled because the GOV is unwilling to grant a lease term that is acceptable to the State Department.

As to his gripe about the practice and custom during the Reagan Administration of sending a strong message that “America stood with those who stand for basic human rights,” it seems like the congressman has a rather selective memory. We may have been doing that in the Soviet Union, but didn’t we embraced an infamous human rights offender in Asia?  While visiting Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator, didn’t Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, toasted Marcos’ “adherence to democratic principles?” How quickly we forget our best moments in diplomacy.

As to Congressman Wolf’s complaint about the handling of the case of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietanmese-American democracy activist and U.S. citizen who is presently being held by the Vietnamese government — for an elected official it shows a limited understanding of what our embassy can and cannot do for Americans in jail.

Dual nationals owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries. Either country has the right to enforce its laws, particularly if the person later travels there. The United States may view Dr. Quan as a dual national U.S. citizen, not prohibited under our laws, but the country of Vietnam may make no distinction about his dual nationality.

Dr Quan was reportedly arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam on a trip on November 17, 2007 for preparing pro-democracy flyers. According to his Wikipedia entry, he brought in a Vietnamese translation of the book From Dictatorship to Democracy about nonviolent resistance. He stood trial in Vietnam on May 13, 2008 on charges of “terrorism” (those commies are creative) and was sentenced to 6 months in prison. He was eventually released on May 17, 2008 and returned to his home in California.

And in April 2012, Dr. Quan was again arrested at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Government officials did not confirm his arrest until five days later. He is reportedly once more, detained on charges of terrorism and for planning to “instigate a demonstration” during the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

News report in April indicate that the U.S. consulate in Vietnam has confirmed his arrest but that no formal charges have been filed and he has not been granted a lawyer.  Since his arrest, the US consulate was apparently able to visit him only once.

According to a 1994 agreement, U.S. citizens, even dual citizens, have the right to consular access if they were admitted into Vietnam as a U.S. citizen with their U.S. passport. If detained or arrested, travel.state.gov advised that “U.S. citizens should insist upon contact with the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulate General.”

The problem is the Government of Vietnam is generally slow to notify the embassy about arrests or to grant access to U.S. citizen prisoners, and it requires diplomatic notes to schedule prison visits. It also does not permit visits without a Vietnamese official being present and insists that all verbal exchanges take place in Vietnamese.

Since the immediate release of Dr. Quan after each arrest is really what the congressman is looking for, nothing that the US mission in Vietnam do will ever be good enough.  Perhaps it would be helpful if the State Department offers basic, no perks, no salary fellowship for our congressional representatives to work the visa line and the American Citizens Services units in the hell holes of the world.  Surely that would be an instructive experience.

Domani Spero

State/OIG: US Mission Vietnam — One Mission, One Team, Well, Sort Of

Several weeks back, State/OIG released its inspection report of the US Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The US Ambassador to Vietnam is career diplomat, David Shear who arrived at post in August 2011. The Consul General at Ho Chi Minh City is An T. Le who arrived at post in August 2010. The Consular Chief in Hanoi is Deborah Fairman who arrived at Embassy Hanoi in August 2009 and became section chief in July 2011, according to the OIG report. The Consular Chief at CG Ho Chi Minh City is not named in the report.

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 7 and 27, 2011; in Hanoi, Vietnam, between October 20 and November 2, 2011, and between November 19 and 21, 2011; and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, between November 2 and 18, 2011. The names of the members of the inspection team have been redacted.

U.S. Ambassador David Shear opens safe medicine exhibition in Hanoi
(Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Some of the key judgments, so very well couched you got to read between the lines:

  • The Ambassador in Hanoi, the consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, and their respective deputies, should be at the forefront of an effort to more effectively coordinate embassy and consulate general operations. Increasing and formalizing regular, planned working visits of American and local employees between the two posts are a necessary step.
  • Embassy Hanoi’s reporting is generally comprehensive and of high quality, although staffing gaps and the loss of a position have adversely affected Hanoi’s output. Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City has not reported frequently enough or in sufficient detail on the official activities, meetings and policy views of the consul general.
  • Overall management operations at Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City are effective, although stronger cooperation and teamwork between the two are necessary.
  • The need for heightened involvement by embassy management in the mission’s management controls program is evident. Management control procedures at both Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City need to be carefully reviewed to ensure that employees at every level are fully aware of their responsibility for ensuring that controls are in place to protect assets and to avoid any perception of conflict of interest.

    U.S. Consul General Le An at Long An Province during a visit to USAID flood relief beneficiaries
    (Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Ambassador Shear arrived at post about couple months before this OIG inspection.  The previous Chief of Mission at US Embassy Hanoi was career FSO, Michael W. Michalak who left post on February 14, 2011. Some of the finer points from the report:

  • The Ambassador also has engaged decisively with the embassy’s sole constituent post: the large and influential Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). On his introductory visit to Ho Chi Minh City, the Ambassador stressed to the American and Vietnamese staff that, as Chief of Mission, he values the important role of the consulate general and expects the embassy and consulate general staffs to function as “one mission, one team.” His message was especially welcome in view of a number of legacy issues, including Ho Chi Minh City’s continuing role as the economic and commercial hub of the entire country, the persistent cultural and historical differences between Vietnam’s North and South, and the symbolic significance that today’s consulate general is located on the site of the former embassy.
  • Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, until recently, have operated more like two, separate missions than one, cohesive entity. The embassy has not provided, nor has the consulate general sought, regular guidance as to how the two posts can best operate together. With the arrival of new staff in summer 2011, both the embassy and the consulate general have started thinking about ways to project a “one mission, one team” face to the government and people of Vietnam and to the respective mission staffs. A necessary step to improving the mission’s cohesiveness will be increasing and formalizing a process whereby American and local employees conduct working visits between the two posts, for consultations and training.

There is no “I” in team, and hey, what about those pol reports?

  • The consul general is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of the host country’s culture and norms. However, he only infrequently writes cables regarding his meetings outside the consulate general. It is important that he include other officers in all meetings related to political and economic affairs, human rights, the environment, energy, adoption concerns, treatment of minorities, and other matters relevant to their respective portfolios. The expertise of these officers should be called upon, even if it means relying on interpreters in some situations. (The Vietnamese language is notoriously difficult; even language-qualified officers sometimes require assistance from native speakers in unscripted situations.) The officers could act as note takers, and write cables or provide other information coming out of these meetings. In a closely controlled political environment such as Vietnam, no post official, including the consul general himself, should meet with Vietnamese officials unaccompanied. As an added benefit, in a culture that venerates seniority and status, including officers in meetings would enhance their ability to develop contacts and follow up independently on important issues.
  • The consulate general has produced some valuable and insightful reporting, but generally there is far less reporting than would be expected of a post of its size. Material provided by a consulate general often ends up in cables from the embassy, and there is a vibrant, informal exchange between the respective political and economic sections. More telling, however, is the lack of emphasis upon reporting by the consul general, who does not routinely report on his own activities nor provide comprehensive readouts. For example, a single cable reported on his visits to 6 provinces over the course of 7 months. This disinclination both eliminated a major source of reporting, as compared to previous years, and undercut the ability of other officers to follow up on his meetings. The inspection team counseled the consul general and his deputy to follow standard reporting practices.

iPads with no wi-fi, because folks will, of course pay for 4G in Vietnam – wait, what?!

  • For security reasons, there is no wireless Internet access at the embassy’s American Center, which limits the usefulness of the its new iPads. The OIG team discussed this situation with the embassy’s information management (IM) section, but due to the technical complexity of the issues, no decisions had been made by the end of the inspection. It is important that the mission continue to research ways to resolve these issues and still comply with Department regulations in 5 FAM 790-792.

VietNamNet has a pretty straightforward explanation – the new iPad has the advantage of having a 4G connection. However, that advantage has no use in Vietnam, where no mobile network has provided 4G services. So if you can’t use the new iPads at the American Center because there is no wireless access and there is no 4G service in Vietnam, the embassy clearly bought itself some pretty expensive mousepads.

The OIG inspectors, blessed their hearts recommends “that Embassy Hanoi explore the feasibility of establishing wireless Internet access or otherwise maximizing the usability of the Hanoi American Center’s iPads.”

Visa Referral System for national interests and who else?

  • The consulate general executive office, including both American and local staff, frequently contact the consular section to pass on information about specific visa applicants. For instance, they might ask the section to review a case; tell why they believe an applicant is qualified; or ask the consular chief or another manager to conduct a second interview. These practices violate the Department’s worldwide referral policy, which mandates that no information on specific cases be passed to the section outside of formal referrals. It is appropriate for the executive office to forward relevant correspondence to the consular section, but it should not ask for special treatment of visa applicants or advocate on their behalf outside the referral system. Shortly before this inspection, the deputy principal officer told local staff to stop sending cases directly to the consular section.
  • There are several issues regarding the way the referral system is handled at the consulate general. Not all referrals indicate how that referral directly supports U.S. national interests; they also do not specify the nature and degree of contact the person making the referral has had with the applicant, as is required by 9 FAM Appendix K.
  • The inspectors counseled the consul general and the deputy principal officer on the Department’s referral policy. They suggested having cards printed, explaining that visa eligibility is determined by strict legal requirements and that the consulate general’s leaders cannot influence the decision. This card, which could be given to anyone inquiring about visas, also could refer applicants to the consulate general’s Web site for additional information. The consul general accepted this suggestion.
  • The mission’s referral policy is out-of-date. As stated above, the referral practices conflict with Department policy on what constitutes a legitimate referral. The consular officers at the consulate general have not been trained on the Department’s policy. Because compliance has been an issue, it will be important for the Ambassador to review a monthly report on all referral cases, including information on any email or other contacts that circumvent the policy.

Wait, wait, our memory may be foggy but at some point in 2009 or 2010, we understand that there was a notice that went out to all missions requiring that the chief of the consular section provide a copy of the Worldwide Visa Referral Policy to mission staff and conduct a referral briefing to each officer who is authorized to utilize the mission referral system, before that officer submits and/or approves any visa referrals.  Actually it is in  9 FAM APPENDIX K, 102 WORLDWIDE VISA REFERRAL POLICY.  Now, this is not optional; the regs even say that “If an officer has not attended a referral briefing and signed the Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement, he or she may not authorize or approve a referral, regardless of his or her position.”

That includes everyone, including Chiefs of Missions and Consul Generals, no doubt.

If there’s one thing that the State Department is really good at, it is writing and sending cables.  So if these senior officers had to be counseled by the OIG on the Department’s worldwide referral policy what are we to think? That they don’t read their incoming cables? Or were folks aware of the referral policy but were too scared to rock the boat?

We don’t know this for sure but we imagine that Vietnam as a communist country is considered a critical threat post for human intelligence. So, if those visa referrals did not indicate how each directly supports U.S. national interest, how come no one is asked to review all of them?

Consular managers missing on the visa line

  • The mission has a policy called “self clearing” that permits experienced, entry-level officers to send, without a manager’s review, memoranda requesting revocation of a petition. Given the sensitivity of these memoranda and the need for consistency, a manager should review all of them before they are sent to the National Visa Center for transmission to the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Some officers indicated that managers spend little time on the visa line. The inspectors emphasized the importance of managers spending some time adjudicating on the line, both to understand any systemic problems and to regularly see the types of cases that officers encounter.

Ugh!  And where’s the lead by example and all that feel good stuff about holding self accountable and modeling the leadership tenets? This is the kind of thing that makes newbies get jaded rather quickly. “Lead by example” but what if they’re learning the bad example?

FSI language training fail or who the heck talks nuclear proliferation with visa applicants?

  • Consular officers also indicated the language training at the Foreign Service Institute did not help them conduct consular interviews; many were more comfortable talking about nuclear nonproliferation than about family relationships.
  • The criteria for designating language study for a particular position (per 13 FAM 221 b.(l)) is that “only those positions where language proficiency is essential, rather than merely helpful or convenient, should be designated…” Language training, although useful, is expensive and time consuming. As such, it should provide officers with the particular language skills needed to adequately perform their job.

Oh dear, like how difficult is this really – you ask, Bạn có bao nhiêu trẻ em? or Urani bao nhiêu bạn có trong căn nhà của bạn? You can just ask the visa applicant how many kids do you have or how much Uranium do you have in your house? Or what kind of heavy water do you use in your laundry? Or are you or anyone in your family ever employed by A.Q Khan? The possibilities are endless, so really there’s no need to have a consular-centric vocabulary to adequately perform a consular job.

Follow the leader, it works

  • The consul general in Ho Chi Minh City circumvented host government importation restrictions by bringing in a vehicle that was more than 5 years old. There have been no reported repercussions. The stated reason behind the importation was to encourage the host government to relax this importation requirement, but the matter has not gained any momentum. It has not been followed up with a diplomatic note, nor was the issue raised with the Office of Foreign Missions. No other exceptions to the rule have been attempted, though some officers were encouraged to also import vehicles older than 5 years.

And so there you have it …. and life goes on….

The names of the accountable, responsible principal officers are all in the OIG reports and a matter of public record.  We hope to save our reading folks time from having to dig them up.

Domani Spero

Related item:

Inspection of Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report Number ISP-I-12-11A, February 2012