The big visa scam

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

Email Print

US consular officer allegedly made millions selling visas by the village-load

RELATED NEWS

 Applicants lined up outside the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City on May 28
Every day, scores of hopeful Vietnamese line up under the spiked iron fence that encircles the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
They clutch plastic folders containing all the details of their lives and await the chance to be searched, stripped of their telephones and interrogated.
The huddled masses are unlikely to enjoy the privilege of this interview, which costs at least $160 and hours in paperwork.
Many will be rejected in minutes because they do not own property or haven't traveled enough.
For years, I've heard vague rumors that visas could be bought or simply granted if you knew the right people.
According to investigators from the US State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), those rumors were true.
On May 13, Michael T. Sestak, the man who ran the Non-Immigrant Visa division of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, was arrested in Los Angeles for his alleged role in a conspiracy to sell non-immigrant visas.
No one at the Consulate, State Department or Embassy has agreed to comment.
Sestak could not be reached for comment. Emails and phone calls sent to the federal public defender that represented him at his initial hearing were not returned. As of press time, Sestak was still being held, without bail, in a California detention center awaiting transfer to Washington DC.
Compliance issues
Long before Sestak's arrest, there were problems with consulate's visa process.
A report published by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General in February of 2012 noted a number of irregularities.
The contents were labeled "sensitive but unclassified."
Inspectors reported that members of the consulate's executive office "frequently" passed on information about certain visa applicants to consular staff in violation of State Department protocol.
The report found that the Consulate General had created "inappropriate" categories for expedited visa appointments, "including a category for cases of special interest generated by the executive office and a category for immediate family members of local employees."
The inspectors urged the Ambassador to keep an eye on any and all visa recommendations.
"Because compliance has been an issue," they wrote in the report, "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."
Tuoi Tre quoted an anonymous source inside the consulate as saying that three Vietnamese members of the Consulate staff members had been fired following Sestak's departure.
An Embassy spokesman declined to comment "on personnel matters."
One of the 'richest people in town'
In October 2012, Sestak was called to a Washington DC office to sit for an interview of his own.
Agents from the Diplomatic Security Service asked him if he'd noticed anyone getting unusually rich on his watch.
He said he hadn't. He and his American staff were more than happy with their generous salaries and benefits.
At that time, Sestak drew over $7,500 a month from his job as a consular officer and an Intelligence Officer in the Navy Reserve.
"[We're] already [some] of the richest people in the country," he told investigators.
When they asked if anyone had been helping friends obtain visas, he said no.
"Most of us didn't have any contacts with the Vietnamese community outside local staff," he said.
Secrets to a US visa
The 42 year-old, former cop, Naval Intelligence Officer and bureaucrat arrived in HCMC in August of 2010 to run the non-immigrant visa section, which frequently ranks as one of the five busiest in the world.
Sestak became well-known around town for his informal chats at the American Center on Le Duan Street.
"Secrets of the Visa Application Process Revealed!!!" read a flyer for one such event emblazoned with clip art of the flag and the statue of liberty.
The flyer promised to reveal the secrets of the luckiest days to schedule visa interviews and the best answers to the interview questions.
According to a 28-page affidavit filed by DSS Special Agent Simon Dinits, Sestak kept a few secrets to himself.
For six months or so, according to chats and emails mined by US investigators, a Vietnamese-American family seized on Sestak's desire to meet women and leveraged it into a lucrative visa scheme.
A Cinderella story
"Last night we went out with this guy who works at the consulate - he's the one who approves visas... and he's this single guy who wants to find someone to be with," wrote Hong Vo, his alleged 27 year old co-conspirators on June 1, 2011. "My brother knows that so he's been trying to get this guy out to introduce him to someone so that he could do favors for us later."
In the ensuing months, sources close to Sestak say the Vo's took him out on the town and introduced him to models at high-end coffee shops.
In exchange, investigators say he rubber stamped the visa applications they sent him.
At first, the scheme benefited the family's relatives by marriage and blood. But before long, investigators say Hong and her family members were soliciting photos and personal information from paying clients and sending them directly to Sestak through shell email accounts.
In exchange, Sestak rigged the interview system to ensure the applications were approved or (at the very least) given a "soft refusal - ” which gave them a chance to come back and get things squared away without re-applying.
His co-conspirators were soon promoting the scheme to other Viet Kieu. In the emails excerpted in the affidavit, the co-conspirators said they targeted Vietnamese Americans because they had money and were "desperate" to get family members into the United States on tourist visas, frequently so they could either "disappear (get married)" or "get the green light to go the next time [they applied]."
This whole process could cost between $20-70,000 per tourist visa. Investigators say they used encoded IP addresses, fake names and wired money through Chinese bank accounts.
But it was all pretty stupid in the end.
Eventually, State Department investigators received a letter from a confidential source that alleged between 50 and 70 people from a single village had illegally secured visas in a two-month period.
The Hotel California
According to sources who knew him, Sestak believed he would return to naval service and took a leave of absence from his post, starting last September.
During the last few months at the consulate, he refused between three and six percent of the applications that came across his desk while the rest of his staff turned down an average of 35 percent of applicants.
After Sestak left the consulate, however, the Navy no longer wanted him.
Sources close to Sestak say he was told his ongoing relationship with a Vietnamese waitress in Ho Chi Minh City had somehow compromised his clearance for the Navy mission.
So Sestak left Vietnam for Thailand with more than $3 million squirreled away in a Thai bank account. When he arrived, he set to work buying over $2 million worth of real estate.
Then he just sort of sat around Bangkok.
Sources involved in his apprehension say that law enforcement agents from the State Department and the US Marshall's Office caught up to him in the Thai capital and put him on a plane to Los Angeles.
He was arrested in Los Angeles and remains in a detention center in Riverside awaiting a flight to DC, where he has been charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery.
On May 8, Hong Vo was arrested in Denver, Colorado and released to her parents' custody. Her co-conspirators, described in the complaint as her brother, her brother's wife, her significant other and her cousin have yet to be named.

More Society News