Diplomat charged with selling US visas

WASHINGTON - A consular officer allegedly sold visas for millions of dollars at the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, and laundered millions in profits by buying real estate in Phuket and Bangkok, reports said Sunday.

  • Published: 26/05/2013 at 02:23 PM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

Foreign Service officer Michael T Sestak was charged by the US government with selling non-resident visas (green cards), mostly for between $50,000 and $70,000 - roughly 1.5 million to 2.1 million baht.

He has been held without bail for more than a week as a "serious flight risk" defendant. Mr Sestak faces charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery.

The story was covered up by the US State Department, but was revealed by McClatchy news agency last Friday.

The number of visas allegedly sold by Mr Sestak, 42, is not yet known. But a 28-page affidavit filed by the US government against him alleges he "received several million dollars in bribes" from Vietnamese seeking to emigrate to the United States.

The affidavit alleged:

"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. He then used the money to purchase real estate in Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand."

Presumably, Mr Sestak bought condominiums, although the affidavit did not reveal that detail.

The investigation of the alleged green-card sales took 10 months from its beginning to the arrest of Mr Sestak last week in California. It began when an informant told the US government that 50 to 70 people from one Vietnamese village had all obtained visas by paying bribes.

During his service at the consulate in Vietnam's commercial hub, previously called Saigon, the rate of visa rejections fell from 35 per cent to just 8.2 per cent.

The charges against Mr Sestak include five alleged co-conspirators, who have not yet been named outside court. One is the "general director of the Vietnam office of a multi-national company located in Vietnam". The four other are friends or relatives of this person, all of whom live in Vietnam.

Along with Mr Sestak, the group allegedly advertised on the quiet that visas to the US could be obtained for a price by going through them.

Both inside Vietnam and in Vietnamese communities in the US, the group advertised that visas could be guaranteed, including for those who wouldn't otherwise be likely candidates, reports said. Other co-conspirators were paid to help to prepare the applications, and Mr Sestak would review the application and approve it, provided the money was right.

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