Living up to one word in the subtitle of this venerable blog, here’s some more intrigue for you. Below are some of the “money paragraphs” from this update. My guess is the fat lady hasn’t sung yet on this bizarre case. Follow this link to read the entire article. It’s not show me the money, it’s where is the money? As this case illustrates, corruption is not unique to emerging economies.
Minor correction: While most of the 489 Vietnamese nationals who participated in this $cheme went on tourist visas, some bought student visas. Good luck finding them in a country as large and populous as the US, which also happens to have a Vietnamese-American community of over 1.5 million. It’s no surprise then that many of them are in Orange County and San Jose, among other areas.
While this case one of the most egregious ever in terms of the large amounts of money involved – “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States” – it’s not the only example of US consular officers selling visas for money or other benefits (e.g., sex). In fact, it’s the lack of accountability that makes it possible for dishonest consular officers to supplement their US State Department income. The only difference is one of scale; most are not as greedy as Sestak and his Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese associates.
Where’s the Re$t of the Loot?
Though the Feds have painted Vo as the mastermind — the man who divvied up and laundered the proceeds — he’ll probably get out of jail well before his 50th birthday. Vo’s younger sister, Hong Chau Vo (an American citizen) and cousin, Truc Thanh Huynh (a citizen of Vietnam) are already out of jail and under 30. If Vo upholds his plea agreement, the US Government will drop all charges against his wife, Nguyen Thuy Dao Anh, (AKA Alice Nguyen), a Vietnamese national who was never arrested.
Sestak may be well into his 60s when he finally gets out of jail.
Prosecutors only put the gang on the hook for a $9.7 million — a “conservative estimate” they came up with by multiplying $20,000 by 489.
And they couldn’t even find all of that.
“The government has been able to locate only approximately $3.1 million of proceeds at financial institutions in the United States. The government also traced approximately $3.2 million in proceeds that [Vo] transferred from Vietnam to Thailand for Sestak who then invested in real estate. Millions of dollars in proceeds remain overseas and outside the reach of the United States.”
To prove they weren’t just being excessive, the government pointed to a statement written by Hong Vo the middle of the illicit ten-month visa auction.
“I can’t believe Binh has pretty much made over $20m with this business,” she wrote to her sister, identified only as Conspirator A.V. “Slow days… are like 3 clients… and that’s like 160k-180.”
As part of his plea agreement, Vo will have only have to cough up $2 million by the end of next year — meaning the government will only have recovered roughly $8.3 million. If Vo makes good on that payment, the government will drop all charges pending against Alice–the only person indicted in the case who managed to avoid arrest and prosecution.
In some ways, the couple anticipated this scenario.
According to intercepted chats, Vo warned his wife against opening Western bank accounts in his name and Hong told a sibling that Alice had purchased plane tickets out of Vietnam in case the whole thing “blew up.”
When it finally did, roughly $7.7 million disappeared in three days from a series of Sacombank accounts held in both their names.
At the same time, the government maintains that the couple used illicit funds to travel to Israel, South Korea and Hong Kong where they blew hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewelry. They bought condos in Saigon Pearl Apartments in Binh Thanh District and the Xi Riverview Palace in District 2. At one point, they custom-built an aquarium so large they had to bring in engineers to make sure it wouldn’t buckle the floor.
During this spree, Vo wheeled and dealed on a $38,000 rose gold cell phone.
While such spending may seem reckless, it made it nearly impossible for investigators to track the money.
We’ll Help You. Sorry, We Changed Our Minds. Good Luck!
The State Department was quick to crow over Vo’s sentencing, but it remains deeply disingenuous about how this case came about and what it means.
“This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice,” crowed Bill Miller, the head of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in a press release generated to mark Vo’s sentencing.
The problem there is that the whole case didn’t come about through careful oversight; it came about because a sad sack from Central Vietnam loaned his pregnant wife $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and the Vos.
Instead of coming home with their baby boy, she disappeared, married another man and blabbed about it on Facebook. The sad sack wrote rambling letters to the President and the State Department’s OIG trying to get his wife and money back.
A Diplomatic Security spokesperson declined to comment on any relationship with their sources, but a DS agent named Tai Pham confirmed that they’d used him to build the case and speculated that the informant had put himself in danger by failing to keep quiet about the way they treated him.
He may well be right.
“I’ve run out of money,” the informant wrote last year in one of his final emails to Thanh Nien. “I cannot hide forever.”