Michael T. Sestak, the US Foreign Service officer accused of selling visas to Vietnamese people while earning several million dollars, made his first appearance in a Washington D.C. court Tuesday, and he has not been released on bail. He has admitted that he earned up to US$5,000 per visa.
Sestak, 41, faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery while he was head of the non-immigrant visa department at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City last year, according to McClatchy news website. In a court session on Tuesday afternoon, federal prosecutors said that Sestak worked with a 27-year-old University of Denver graduate named Hong Vo and four others to recruit customers who would pay up to $70,000 for a visa. Sestak and his co-conspirators also encouraged people to enter the United States on tourist visas first, and then overstay the visas and remain in the US, prosecutors said. U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson said she declined to release Sestak from jail as he had petitioned, and held him without bond. Sestak served at the consulate from August 2010 until last September, when he left in preparation for active-duty service with the Navy. Sestak’s visa fraud scam lasted from March to September 2012. Sestak charged US$50,000-70,000 per visa in bribes from Vietnamese people who could not get visas on their own or had been rejected, according to the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). From May 1 to September 6, 2012, the consulate received 31,386 non-immigrant visa applications and rejected 35.1 percent of them, investigators say. During the same period, Sestak handled 5,489 visa applications and rejected only 8.2 percent of them. Prosecutors said on May 22 that “a conservative estimate” of the proceeds from the alleged conspiracy was “at least $10 million” paid from about 500 applicants. Of the amount, $6 million was held in a bank in the US, $2.3 million was transferred to a bank in Thailand and was later spent by Sestak on properties in the country, and the remainder may be in Vietnam, investigators said.One more co-conspirator held, account blocked On Tuesday, US officials announced that a 29-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh, had been arrested in Washington on charges of conspiring with Sestak in the alleged visa scheme, McClatchy reports. Huynh, who is one of Hong Vo’s cousins, is considered to be Co-conspirator No. 5, according to investigators. Huynh is also a relative of Vo Tang Binh, a 39-year-old Vietnamese-American businessman who holds the post of general director at Santa Freight Forwarding Joint Stock Company. Binh is regarded as Co-conspirator No.1.Meanwhile, Vo, who was arrested on May 8 in Denver, is considered to be Co-conspirator No. 3. In court documents, federal investigators say Vo “earned a minimum of $45,000” last year for her alleged participation in the visa scam. In another development, investigators confirmed that Sestak had not been arrested in southern California, as reported, but in Phuket, Thailand, where he had bought four properties, on May 7. In a related development, DSS has reportedly filed a warrant to seize money in an account at Scottrade Bank held by another alleged co-conspirator, Nguyen Thuy Anh Dao, also known as Alice Nguyen, who is Binh’s wife. DSS claims the money in this account came from the visa scam.Sestak admits to pocketing $3 mln According to investigators, during the first questioning session by DSS, Sestak pleaded guilty to visa fraud, bribery and transnational money laundering. Sestak said he and Binh planned their visa fraud scam, and explained that he would approve visas for people whose names had been provided to him by Binh. Binh was also responsible for receiving bribes from visa applicants, and then handed a part of the money to him. Sestak said he did not know how much the applicants had actually paid, but he received US$1,000-5,000 per visa from Binh. The former visa chief estimated that from May to September 2012, he approved about 10 visas per day and received about $3 million in total. He also confessed that Binh had relied on a person in HCMC to move Sestak’s money from the scam out of Vietnam using money launderers and off-shore banks. All of the money sent to accounts held by Sestak and Binh’s wife (Nguyen Thuy Anh Dao) were transferred from an account at the China Bank in Beijing, Sestak said.