On August 14, a federal judge in Washington DC sentenced Michael T. Sestak, 44, to a little over five years in prison for his role in what prosecutors called “a case of almost unprecedented greed.”
Just weeks after the sentencing the man they described as the “mastermind” of the scheme, prosecutors asked a judge to exponentially reduce the former Foreign Service Officer's punishment by nearly a factor of five.
Robert Feitel, the attorney who represented two of Sestak's co-conspirators dismissed the government's change of heart as absurd.
“Sestak is the federal employee that made this happen,” he said by telephone. “He was the only essential person in this conspiracy. The whole idea that someone else brought this forward is preposterous in every possible way.”
Sestak's attorney, Gray Broughton, called the sentence “fair and well-reasoned” despite the fact his client signed a plea agreement in 2013 that carried a minimum of 19 years in prison.
By the time Sestak took his plea, he'd confessed to approving 489 non-immigrant visa applications at the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes funneled to him by Binh Tang Vo, a Vietnamese-American millionaire.
“In federal court a lot of credit is given to those who cooperate and throw themselves at the mercy of the court,” Broughton told Thanh Nien News before estimating that Sestak may be out of jail before Christmas of 2017.
The information Sestak provided helped lead federal investigators to arrest and prosecute Vo, his younger sister Hong Chau Vo and their Vietnamese cousin Nguyen Thanh Truc.
Hong and Truc pleaded guilty and have both been released.
Last month, the US government sentenced Vo to eight years in prison after he'd agreed to forfeit $2 million.
In exchange for his cooperation, the government dropped all charges against Vo's Vietnamese wife, whom Broughton and prosecutors say still has millions stashed overseas.
Feitel dismissed the wiretapped statements that formed the foundation of those assertions as “pure puffery” and questioned how prosecutors could have once demanded Sestak spend decades in prison, only to let him off the hook and force his co-conspirator to serve eight.
“To me what matters here is process—the government's process,” Feitel said adding that Sestak should serve the time he agreed to serve.
“Fair is fair.”
'A true patriot'
Sestak, his family and friends have declined repeated requests for comment since his arrest in May of 2013.
But in the months before his sentencing, they submitted 20 letters to a federal judge that described Sestak as a “true patriot,” a “friendly, loyal and responsible diplomat” and “a lonely individual eager to find a wife.”
According to the letters, Sestak grew up a Boy Scout who played little league baseball and studied hard for good grades.
A former roommate named Timothy Mastromarchi recalled that Sestak survived on bags of potatoes and borrowed money while juggling work, community college and training at the Albany police academy.
“He has always worked hard, lived frugally and strived to do the right thing,” he wrote.
Sestak later joined the US Marshall's service, a job that involved guarding the sorts of judges who would later sentence him to prison.
Following September 11, he spent months searching for human remains in the rubble of the World Trade Towers, an experience his father said left him “harder” and “distant.”
After earning a master's degree at New York University, Sestak joined the Navy Reserve where he served as a liaison to US Army Intelligence Headquarters in Iraq.
“Michael’s involvement in the fruitless search for WMD throughout Iraq shook his previously unwavering trust in the United States Government,” his attorney wrote.
In 2003, Sestak became a Foreign Service Officer for the US State Department—a job that would rotate him in and out of consulates in Poland, Colombia, Spain and finally Vietnam.
Who corrupted whom?
Sestak's attorney seemed to blame Vietnam for his client's undoing.
Broughton says visa seekers bombarded Sestak with offers of everything from gold watches and expensive electronic equipment as soon as he arrived at the Ho Chi Minh City consulate in August of 2010.
“Michael was unable to develop any real friendships with American employees at the Consulate and he didn’t really have any Vietnamese friends,” Broughton wrote. “The few Vietnamese men that Michael met who ran in the same circles would ultimately harass Michael for visa 'favors.’”
During the first 16 months of his assignment in Vietnam, Broughton said Sestak came to naively trust the man who would make millions feeding him customers.
“Binh Vo slowly became Michael’s closest confident,” Broughton wrote. “Their friendship developed to the point where they met almost daily for meals or coffee. Binh Vo introduced Michael to his siblings, who went out of their way to include Michael in 'family-only' functions.”
In the end, Broughton claimed the family deliberately targeted and used Sestak.
The government seemed to agree.
Attorney Feitel, who represented Vo's sister Hong and cousin Truc, dismissed Broughton's version of events.
“These people weren't his family and friends,” he said over the phone. “They were just people he could use to get out of jail.”
Feitel argues that Sestak's sentence proves the US government never really understood the case.
When Diplomatic Security investigators called Sestak to Washington DC to interview him about the possibility of corruption at the consulate in 2012, he lied.
According to an affidavit filed by one of the investigators, Sestak insisted that the Americans at the consulate did not consort with Vietnamese and their generous government salaries already made them some of the richest people in the country.
Feitel also says the government “seems to have forgotten” that shortly after his arrest, Sestak signed an affidavit claiming he owned just $250,000 worth of property in Thailand.
In reality, he spent nearly all of his $3.2 million share of the scheme on nine condos in Bangkok and Phuket.
“Why would anyone believe anything Sestak says given his history of lies?” Feitel asked.
A bleak future
Sestak's father, Raymond, spent 1969 flying combat reconnaissance missions over Vietnam as part of a semi-clandestine air force unit tasked with monitoring electronic sensors on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
During his year-long mission, he probably never had any idea that the country below would be the site of his son's unlikely undoing.
In a letter written directly to the judge that sentenced him, Sestak's father claimed his boy has spent days at a time in solitary confinement and hadn't seen the sun in four straight months.
“His conversations have become repetitive and he is becoming forgetful about some things,” he wrote. “I am more than a little concerned about his wellbeing.”
Sestak's attorney likewise described his client's unlikely journey through the criminal justice system as a kind of horror show and his future as bleak.
“To my knowledge, I don't believe [Sestak's] gonna have anything,” he said via telephone. “There might be a very small pension from the Albany Police Department. He wouldn't be eligible for any sort of military retirement. He might have the equivalent from a 401k from State Department.”
When asked how Sestak could afford to pay him, Broughton demurred.
“I can't disclose,” he said, trailing off.