Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City

mike sestak
Photo from a 3 May 2012 US Consulate General, HCMC, Vietnam news brief entitled “EducationUSA Hosts Student Visas Session”: “NIV Chief Mike Sestak talked about student visas.”

Say it ain’t so, Mike!  Michael Sestak, the former NIV (Non-Immigrant Visa) chief in the US Consulate General in HCMC, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  To paraphrase a verse from the The Good Book:  greed and arrogance goeth before a fall.  Apparently, his generous foreign service officer salary and the various goodies that went with it were not enough.  (His salary – after taxes – was $7,500 per month, or 90k a year, from his positions as a Foreign Service Officer and a reservist in the US Navy.)  He yielded to temptation and sinned to the tune of at least several million dollars.  So much for incorruptible US government employees.

The estimated money that Sestak “earned” from his extra services, above and beyond the call of duty and the bounds of legality, is what the Department of State’s Keystone Cops (aka Diplomatic Security Service, or DSS) were able to trace. There’s a lot more floating around in the form of cold, hard cash and, possibly, gold bars, and other hard assets. It’s a pleasant thought for Sestak to contemplate as he serves his sentence of up to 20 years in a federal pen.

So while Mike was preaching about the holy trinity of the student visa process (1. be a bona fide student; 2. have the ability to pay; and 3. have plans to return to your home country after graduation or an OPT experience), the only criterion for him was the ability to pay, not for study and living expenses in the US but for the visa itself.  Unfettered free market capitalism practiced by someone who was supposed to serve as a gatekeeper.

In the wise and eloquent words of my friend, SC: This must be a huge temptation for those in strategic jobs with no sense of a moral compass. Arbitrary political borders married to supply & demand have a way of ruining careers while fueling the general citizenry’s cynicism. Indeed. Of course, given the virtually non-existent coverage to date in the US mainstream media, not many US citizens are aware of this crime. While the scandal has received extensive coverage in the Vietnamese and English language media in Vietnam, the first major coverage in the US of which I’m aware is this CNN article, which appeared yesterday (5 June):
U.S. Foreign Service officer charged in Vietnam visa fraud case.

Sorry, Mike.  You may have the kind of intelligence required to pass the Foreign Service Exam but you’re as bright as a 10-watt bulb when it comes to white-collar crime.  How you and your co-conspirators thought you could get away with this is beyond comprehension.  A precocious ten-year old could have nailed you on charges of visa fraud, bribery and money-laundering.  Y’all know the expression:  Follow the money.  Add to that some search warrants to access Mike’s Gmail and Yahoo! accounts and those of his co-conspirators and, voila, case solved!

Speaking of the Internet, take a gander at the website of the Consulate General of the United States, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and do a search for “Mike Sestak.”  Result?  Your search did not match any documents.  He disappeared almost overnight or, to be more precise, in the weeks since this story broke.  Thank God for the Wayback Machine: Internet Archive.  You can delete, but you can’t erase, the cyber equivalent of “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Golden Rules for White-Collar Criminals (aka White-Collar Crime for Dummies)

Here are some golden rules for other consular officers who are tempted to abuse their positions of authority and trust, those  “in strategic jobs with no sense of a moral compass.”

Student Visas (NAFSA)Rule #1:  Don’t get too greedy.  Watch the percentages.  Make sure your issuance rate is not a blinking red light or a screaming police siren, pun intended.  Denial rates of 8.2% and 3.8% at a high fraud post are an engraved invitation to DSS to peek behind the curtain.  Sestak might as well have tattooed his forehead with this come-on and confession:  “Kiss me.  I’m a visa scam artist.”

Rule #2:  If you’ve followed Rule #1, don’t include too many co-conspirators.  It’s the converse of “the more the merrier.”  Each one is a potential liability and likely to end up in an affidavit and a court of law testifying against YOU.  Squeeze ’em and they’ll spill the beans in a heartbeat.  (Loyalty does have its limits; self-preservation is what it’s all about.)

Rule #3:  Don’t use web-based email accounts to carry out your crime(s), unless you’re really, really computer savvy.  (I’m thinking untraceable accounts, proxy servers and encryption here.)  Better yet, limit your conversations to in-person chats and cell phone conversations using numbers that cannot be traced to you.

My Recommendation (assumes you have bypassed the aforementioned rules):  Once you’ve put in your time, retire and follow in the footsteps of your fellow retired FSOs and other former USG employees who are making the big bucks without resorting to scams and money-laundering.  The revolving door still pays off in spades.  Patience really is a virtue.  Plan your escape but do it by the book.

Sellin’ Like Hot Cakes!

There have been rumors about “visas for sale” in Vietnam.  In a free market economy in which so much is for sale, my response was always “not likely” given the system of checks and balances that the US Mission has (is supposed to have) in place.  Trust, but verify.  The plot has thickened ever since (five) more names were released, including those of US and Vietnamese citizens that appear in the affidavit as “co-conspirators.”

It’s interesting and disturbing that Sestak wasn’t caught by his employer; it was an informant who brought this scam to the attention of the authorities.  That brings up the question:  who was minding the store?  (Me thinks this case is yet another nail in the coffin of a certain someone’s political pressure campaign to become the next US Ambassador to Vietnam.)

What shocked me more than the visa scam itself was the going rate:  50-70k.  I guess the “gang of six” determined that was what the market could bear.  Silly, naive me – I would have guessed a few thousand for a visa.  What’s ironic is that many would probably have received a visa without the bribe.  Mum’s the word but people of means usually stand a much better chance of obtaining a visa.  Refunds, anyone?

mike sestak in march 2012
From 13-16 March 2012 EducationUSA Senior Advisor Ngoc Quach and Consulate Non-Immigrant Visa Chief gave a series of tandem presentations at four different schools in Can Tho, Hau Giang and Ca Mau.

On the one hand, there are qualified and deserving Vietnamese, including parents who want to attend a son’s or daughter’s graduation, and bona fide students, whose applications are rejected because of the “intuition” of the interviewing consular officer, who has the power of God without His/Her wisdom.  On the other hand, people like Mike Sestak are issuing visas based on ability to pay.  Based on what I’ve heard “on the street” about visas for sale in other countries, I’m wondering if this isn’t the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Dear Reader – What do I say the next time a parent asks whether a US visa can be bought?


P.S.:  The silver lining to this scandal is that we’re not likely to hear too many holier-than-thou statements emanating from the US Mission in Vietnam in the coming weeks and months.  Be grateful for small mercies.

Recommended Reading

Here are some articles in English and Vietnamese.

Catching up with the Vos (6 June 2013)  Don’t miss the video!

Bộ Tư pháp Mỹ ra thông cáo về vụ “bán” visa (6.6.13)

Sestak khai nhận 1000-5000 USD/visa (6.6.13)

The big visa scam (2 June 2013)

Michael T. Sestak, accused of selling visas, held without bond (4.6.13) Follow-up article

Foreign Service officer made millions in visa-for-money scam, feds charge (23.5.13)  Original story

3 thoughts on “Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City

  1. “The student visas were given largely to Vietnamese students with family in the United States. The money paid for these visas came from wealthy families, many of whom obtained the money from family members in the United States.”

    p. 3 United States District Court for the District of Columbia
    United States of America v. Michael T. Sestak, Defendant
    Case Number: 1:13 mj 0339 AK

    Michael T. Sestak’s Reply to Government’s Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Revocation of Detention Order

    In case you’re wondering…

    “For the aforementioned reasons, the Court finds that pretrial detention of the defendant is appropriate in this case because the Court finds it more likely than not that no conditions of release will reasonably assurance the appearance of Mr. Sestak at trial.

    So Ordered.

    Signed by Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge, June 7, 2013

    In other words, Mike Sestak will remain in custody at least until his case has been adjudicated.

    Thanks, K, for the heads-up.


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