Foreign Service Officer Michael Sestak's co-conspirators in the Ho Chi Minh City visa scam have either pleaded guilty or had all charges dropped against them. On August 14, Sestak will receive his final sentence in a case that left millions unaccounted for and the government's key informant broke and fearful for his life.
On July 14, a federal judge in Washington DC handed Binh Tang Vo eight years for orchestrating what prosecutors called “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States.”
Vo's troubles began in May of 2013, when Thai immigration police helped the US government get their hands on Michael Sestak, who instantly copped to selling visas from his desk at the Ho Chi Minh City consulate in exchange for bribes collected by Vo and his family members.
Four months later, law enforcement agents in Ho Chi Minh City put the 41-year-old Vietnamese American on a plane to Washington Dulles International Airport where US agents placed him under arrest.
Unlike Sestak, Vo lawyered up and fought the charges until March, when he confessed to bribing the former Albany cop and naval intelligence officer to rubber-stamp visa applications for between $5,000-70,000.
Operating under the codename “David,” Vo and his family members told “desperate” cases in Vietnam that “a lawyer” could help them get to the US where they could “enter into sham marriages” or “just disappear,” according to electronic communications produced in court documents.
Though the Feds have painted Vo as the mastermind -- the man who divvied up and laundered the proceeds -- he'll probably get out of jail well before his 50th birthday. Vo's younger sister, Hong Chau Vo (an American citizen) and cousin, Truc Thanh Huynh (a citizen of Vietnam) are already out of jail and under 30. If Vo upholds his plea agreement, the US Government will drop all charges against his wife, Nguyen Thuy Dao Anh, (AKA Alice Nguyen), a Vietnamese national who was never arrested.
Sestak may be well into his 60s when he finally gets out of jail.
Missing tourists and millions
Prosecutors say Vo enlisted Hong, Truc and Alice, in a scheme that sent 489 Vietnamese nationals to the US on fraudulent tourist visas.
What happened to those people remains a mystery.
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.
But Sestak and Vo's customers aren't the only things that went missing.
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.
And they couldn't even find all of that.
“The government has been able to locate only approximately $3.1 million of proceeds at financial institutions in the United States. The government also traced approximately $3.2 million in proceeds that [Vo] transferred from Vietnam to Thailand for Sestak who then invested in real estate. Millions of dollars in proceeds remain overseas and outside the reach of the United States.”
To prove they weren't just being excessive, the government pointed to a 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.”
(Don't) show me the money
According to the mountain of evidence produced in court documents, Vo spent months distributing and dispersing the bribes in sums he hoped couldn't be detected by financial regulators.
It didn't always work.
Two years ago, a team of Internal Revenue Service agents seized over a quarter million dollars from an account in Michigan.
Instead of letting it go, Vo hired an attorney and tried to get the money back by describing the $280,000 as payment for a loan he'd given someone to buy an apartment in Saigon.
He would later admit it was a lie and prosecutors maintain he never really came clean.
“Although [Vo] has accepted responsibility by entering a plea of guilty in this case, he has not been honest with the Court or the probation department regarding his financial status,” prosecutors said. “Faced with prison, his greed is still paramount.”
A screen capture of Binh and Dao Vo's wedding video from November 2012. Michael T. Sestak (L), the former head of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City's Non-Immigrant Visa Division apparently served as Vo's best man at the wedding.
As part of his plea agreement, Vo will have only have to cough up $2 million by the end of next year -- meaning the government will only have recovered roughly $8.3 million. If Vo makes good on that payment, the government will drop all charges pending against Alice--the only person indicted in the case who managed to avoid arrest and prosecution.
In some ways, the couple anticipated this scenario.
According to intercepted chats, Vo warned his wife against opening Western bank accounts in his name and Hong told a sibling that Alice had purchased plane tickets out of Vietnam in case the whole thing “blew up.”
When it finally did, roughly $7.7 million disappeared in three days from a series of Sacombank accounts held in both their names.
At the same time, the government maintains that the couple used illicit funds to travel to Israel, South Korea and Hong Kong where they blew hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewelry. They bought condos in Saigon Pearl Apartments in Binh Thanh District and the Xi Riverview Palace in District 2. At one point, they custom-built an aquarium so large they had to bring in engineers to make sure it wouldn't buckle the floor.
During this spree, Vo wheeled and dealed on a $38,000 rose gold cell phone.
While such spending may seem reckless, it made it nearly impossible for investigators to track the money.
Go ask Alice
Nearly a decade younger than her husband, Alice obtained an MBA from the University of Texas Austin before they married at a gaudy wedding ceremony held in November of 2012.
Sestak, then on leave from his State Department job without pay, flew to Ho Chi Minh City to sit at the head table.
Alice has remained aloof since his arrest in May 2013.
Last week, her mother Trang responded to Thanh Nien's attempts to seek comment by phone.
Trang denied her daughter had anything to do with the scam. The family had earned plenty of money from legitimate real estate developments, she said.
Trang further claimed that Vo used Alice's bank accounts to launder illicit funds without her knowledge.
Her claims flew in the face of numerous Google chats produced by investigators wherein Hong described Alice (and Trang, for that matter) as being directly involved in the scheme.
Though Trang and her husband were never charged with a crime, investigators pointed out that Sestak had a pattern of approving visa applications submitted from Trang and her husband's IP Address. When Vo flew his own mother to Ho Chi Minh City to help with the scheme, Alice reportedly protested that she didn't want to involve their parents.
“Well [ALICE'S] parents are doing it too!” Hong wrote in a chat with an unidentified sibling.
Alice never responded to Thanh Nien's request for comment. Neither Trang nor Binh Vo's mother were ever charged with a crime. Trang didn't respond to follow-up calls and text messages seeking further clarification.
The perfect crime
Business associates say Vo was a millionaire before he kicked off the scheme that would send federal investigators after the people closest to him.
Sestak, too, had a comfortable future ahead.
At the time of his arrest he reported $143,000 in legitimate savings on top of an $8,000 monthly salary from the State Department. As a single diplomat, he required less than $500 a month for food and bills, according to his financial disclosure form.
So why did they do it?
Perhaps because it was so easy.
In November of 2011, well before the scheme began, the State Department's Inspector General (OIG) visited the consulate and found that staff weren't handling tourist visas correctly.
In December of 2012, when the scheme was in full-swing, the OIG released a report that urged Ambassador David Shear to "ensure that the worldwide referral policy for nonimmigrant visas is strictly enforced at Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City."
The report suggested that the man in charge, Consul General An Le, took a fairly lax approach to official procedures. According to redacted pages obtained by Thanh Nien, Le had his staff solicit cash donations at a July 4th event. A “local employee” then left the equivalent of $10,050 in cash in an unlocked drawer with no clear plan for where it would go.
“There were no controls in place to ensure that donations were not accepted from prohibited or other sources which could result in the appearance of a conflict of interest and receipts were sent to donors only weeks after the event,” the investigators found.
Just before Sestak's arrest, DC reporter Greg Rushford published a story that detailed how Le and a group influential Vietnamese Americans lobbied to make him the next Ambassador to Vietnam.
The campaign failed.
Friends and former colleagues say Le has since retired from public service.
In August of 2013, VietnamNet reported that Le was “returning to the United States for a new task.”
The news site quoted the departing Le as saying “I am proud of the accomplishments of the Consulate team and grateful for the help, support, and cooperation of the Vietnamese people, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and U.S. Ambassador David Shear.”
In May of 2014, a local real estate firm called the Hung Thinh Corporation announced that Le had become its new advisor for international relations. His tasks included helping ensure Vietnamese Americans could purchase property in Vietnam.
Le did not respond to a list of questions sent to him via email.
Painted a patsy
In court filings, State Department investigators painted Sestak like a child who got his hand caught in a cookie jar.
“OK,” he allegedly told them during a taped interview in Bangkok. “ I did something wrong and I deserve to pay for it, and I know I’m going to go to jail, I’m going to go to prison.”
The next day, he drastically undervalued his Thai real estate holdings at $250,000. The court would later value the condos in Bankok and Phukett to be worth $3.2 million. Despite the omission, the government has continued to paint him as a hapless patsy.
They drew heavily on chats and emails written by Hong Vo that described Sestak as a “loser guy who works at the consulate” -- one who considered Vo “like his best friend.”
They further charged that “[Vo] actively cultivated a relationship with Sestak in order to take advantage of his position at the Consulate [and] turned this relationship into millions of dollars for himself and Sestak.”
The characterization leaves one to wonder how naive someone like Sestak (a former Albany cop and US Marshall) could be or why the government insists such is the case.
His new defense attorney, Gray Broughton, declined to explain the details of Sestak's plea agreement, which was negotiated by a lawyer who once taught high school English.
“I don't know how the Court will sentence Mr. Sestak,” Broughton wrote via email. “But I am sure that the Court will take into account Mr. Sestak's many attributes rather than simply looking at the crimes he committed.”
Broughton, who owns a series of successful sandwich shops, has already featured Sestak's case on his website.
“Represented State Department official extradited from Thailand and prosecuted on bribery charges, which resulted in guilty plea and role as cooperating witness.”
On August 14, Sestak will be sentenced to somewhere between 19 and 24 years in prison.
In the meantime, he's busy helping the government liquidate his Thai property with the understanding that they won't seize his sister's house in Jupiter, Florida.
Like most everyone in the story, she declined to comment. So did Sestak's father.
But don't feel too bad for Sestak; feel bad for the guy who put him in jail.
(Solving) crime doesn't pay
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.
Back when Thanh Nien first reported
on the informant's role in initiating the investigation, Diplopundit, a blog that tracks State Department news, posed the following questions:
“If this case started with this reportedly jilted lover, the question then becomes how come the internal consular management controls did not trip up the [Foreign Service Officer] accused in this case? If there was no anonymous source, would the authorities have discovered what was right under their noses?”
Diplopundit goes into the details of just how many systematic failures would be involved in such a scenario here
The questions never got answered and the informant got nothing for the risks he took to help the US government.
According to emails the informant posted on a Facebook page falsely ascribed to Michael Sestak, FBI and DSS agents pumped him for details about his wayward wife and other women who'd bought visas. American investigators clearly held out the possibility of a protective visa if he continued to help them -- then cut him off when they had everything they needed.
The informant points out that the details he furnished the investigators made criminals out of nearly 500 Vietnamese people—some of whom continue to send him threatening text messages
A Diplomatic Security spokesperson declined to comment on any relationship with their sources, but a DS agent named Tai Pham confirmed that they'd used him to build the case and speculated that the informant had put himself in danger by failing to keep quiet about the way they treated him.
He may well be right.
“I've run out of money,” the informant wrote last year in one of his final emails to Thanh Nien. “I cannot hide forever.”
Dien Luong contributed reporting to this story