Foreign Service officer made millions in visa-for-money scam, feds charge

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 23, 2013 

— A State Department official “received several million dollars in bribes” from Vietnamese residents seeking visas, according to newly public court documents.

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.

An attorney for Sestak didn’t offer comment Thursday.

Sestak, who turns 42 this year, was quietly arrested in Southern California about a week ago. Citing a “serious risk defendant will flee,” authorities secured a judge’s order to hold him without bail until he can be transferred back to Washington, where the complaint was originally filed under seal May 6.

Though it’s since been unsealed, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington declined Thursday to comment on the case until Sestak has been returned to the city. A State Department representative also declined to comment.

Dinits, a special agent with the department’s Diplomatic Security Service, spelled out the allegations against Sestak and five unnamed co-conspirators in a 28-page affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint. The allegations include a close accounting of how the Foreign Service officer, according to investigators, shifted ill-gotten gains across international borders.

“He ultimately moved the money out of Vietnam by using money launderers through offshore banks, primarily based in China, to a bank account in Thailand that he opened in May 2012,” Dinits said. “He then used the money to purchase real estate in Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand.”

Sestak joined the consulate staff in Ho Chi Minh City in August 2010 and served as the chief of the non-immigrant visa staff. It was a busy office and Sestak came to have a remarkably lenient record for granting visa applications, Dinits said.

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.

Sestak’s reported visa rejection rate fell to 3.8 percent in August, shortly before he was to leave the office.

According to Dinits, one of Sestak’s alleged co-conspirators was the “general director of the Vietnam office of a multi-national company located in Vietnam.” The four others were friends or relatives of this individual. All live in Vietnam.

Dinits said one co-conspirator “reached out to people in Vietnam, and in the U.S.,” and would advertise that visas could be guaranteed, including for those who wouldn’t otherwise be likely candidates. Other co-conspirators would help prepare the applicant and Sestak would review the application, according to Dinits.

Last July, Dinits said, an informant advised consular officials that 50 to 70 people from one village in Vietnam had illegally paid for their visas. That prompted investigators to start tracing online visa applications using Internet Protocol addresses, the unique numbers used to find particular computers or servers on the Internet. The investigators reported tracing money transfers, including $150,000 allegedly sent to Sestak’s sister in Florida. They also snooped on email accounts

“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.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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