A Retrospective of Halcyon Days & a Precipitous Fall from Grace
Sestak pleaded guilty on Nov. 6, 2013, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud and to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity. He was sentenced by the Honorable John D. Bates. Following his prison term, Sestak will be placed on three years of supervised release. Former U.S. Consulate Official Sentenced to 64 Months in Prison for Receiving Over $3 Million in Bribes in Exchange for Visas, US Department of Justice, 14.8.15
Ready for another dose of intrigue? How time flies. It seems like only yesterday that Mike Sestak, former Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV) Chief at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), was being sentenced for conspiracy to commit bribery, visa fraud, etc. (See above for the “etc.”) He was arrested in May 2013, sentenced in August 2015, and is scheduled to be released today, US time, from RRM Orlando, a “residential reentry management field office,” i.e., minimum security federal prison, according to the handy Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator. While it’s still prison with all of the inconveniences that go with it, it’s the closest thing the US federal prison system has to a country club setting.
Forgive Him For He Had a Moral Lapse
So the story goes, Mike was persuaded to join an illicit Vietnamese “family business” that spanned two countries by providing visas to people willing and able to fork over four or five figures for one. As the NIV chief at the time, Mike was the lynchpin of the operation, the hapless, friendless, naive white guy who just happened to have a moral lapse and allowed himself to be used by the locals and their gang for whom he was but a mere commodity, a means to a financial end. So the story goes.
Like a Canary
After Mike was arrested in May 2013 in Bangkok, he sang like a canary with one glaring exception. While he quickly confessed to his crimes, he vastly undervalued the properties he had purchased in Thailand with laundered proceeds from the visa scam. He did say he was sorry and has apparently has been a good boy in the federal pen.
In a taped interview he said something along the lines of “I did something wrong and I deserve to pay for it, and I know I’m going to go to jail…” I know this dates me but that reminded me of a line from the old Sammy Davis Jr. song, Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow, otherwise known as Baretta’s Theme from the 1970s cop show of the same name starring bad boy Robert Blake: Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time. (Don’t do it.)
The lenient sentence no doubt also had something to do with the fact that Mike is white, male, a former cop, US Marshal, and US Navy reservist. He was an All-American boy, albeit with $3.2 million in ill-gotten gains to his credit. He could have received between 19 and 24 years under federal sentencing guidelines, which meant he would have been in his 60s before he regained his freedom. A good lawyer, Lady Luck, or was it something else?
MICHAEL T SESTAK
Register Number: 64834-112
Located at: Orlando RRM
Release Date: 01/04/2018
Including time served, Mike got a reduction of 9 months off of what many considered to be a very light sentence for someone who made a few mill selling visas. Maybe crime really does pay. Maybe you can do the crime and only do some of the time?
Where’s the Re$t of It?
One contact familiar with the case told me that Mike’s retirement plan was a lot better than his. Spend a few years in a relatively cozy federal prison working out and reading Tolstoy, all the while thinking about the millions he has stashed away somewhere. Reliable sources say that the total haul was well over $9.7 million, perhaps as high as $20 million. (If you divide $9.7 million by 489 visas sold, the average amount is $19,836. Many of the visas were sold in the 50-70k range. You do the math. Mike and his one-time partners in crime have.)
Exhibit A: “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.” (Source: As Sestak scandal draws to close US government gives up on millions, 2.8.15)
Exhibit B: According to intercepted chats, (these guys & gals really were amateurs!) 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. (Source: same as above)
Note: A shout-out to HCMC-based investigative reporter Calvin Godfrey for his crack reporting of this jaw-dropping case.
Something To Look Forward To?
What about his associate, who was already a millionaire when and he and Mike started selling visas, including those of the tourist and student variety? Binh Vo (Vo Tang Binh) will be out a year later. Whoever said life was fair? Speaking of fairness, his digs are not as cushy as Mike’s, South Dakota vs. Florida. If you were in a minimum security facility, where would you rather be? Yeah, I thought so.
On the other hand, it seems fairly certain that Binh has a fortune to look forward to once he is able to rejoin his Vietnamese wife, who is presumably still in HCMC. Remember the “roughly $7.7 million” that pulled a Houdini in the course of three days? Just one more year (!). Keep in mind that the current savings interest rate on a three-year CD ranges between 7-8% in Viet Nam.
BINH TANG VO
Register Number: 33001-016
Located at: Yankton FPC
Release Date: 09/13/2019
Visas Are NOT for Sale
I remember before this story broke hearing on the grapevine in Viet Nam that it was possible to buy a US visa. My response to people who shared this information was that the US Embassy and Consulate would never sell visas. It was another one of those wild rumors. Sadly, it turned out not to be idle gossip.
Here’ s a quote from an August 2015 blog post about this case. It’s as true now as it was then.
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.
There is an urgent need for more accountability related to the work of consular officers. This is the most compelling reason.
Who Rained on Sestak and Co.’s Parade?
Hint: The person who pulled the plug was not an employee of the US government.
There had been official warnings before this case. It’s obvious that no one, including Anh Le, the consul general at the time, was minding the shop. Even then Ambassador David Shear got a rhetorical slap on the wrist – in retrospect – from the government he served. Here’s a relevant excerpt from the aforementioned article:
In November of 2011, well before the scheme began, the State Department’s Inspector General (OIG) visited the consulate and found that staff weren’t handling tourist visas correctly.
In December of 2012 (actually, February of that year), when the scheme was in full-swing, the OIG released a report (PDF download) that urged Ambassador David Shear to “ensure that the worldwide referral policy for nonimmigrant visas is strictly enforced at Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City.”
The report suggested that the man in charge, Consul General An Le, took a fairly lax approach to official procedures. According to redacted pages obtained by Thanh Nien, Le had his staff solicit cash donations at a July 4th event. A “local employee” then left the equivalent of $10,050 in cash in an unlocked drawer with no clear plan for where it would go.
“There were no controls in place to ensure that donations were not accepted from prohibited or other sources which could result in the appearance of a conflict of interest and receipts were sent to donors only weeks after the event,” the investigators found.
It bears mentioning again that the original tip came not from within the US Consulate or elsewhere in the US government but from a jilted lover, a man in central Viet Nam who had loaned his pregnant fiancée $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and Co. According to this July 2013 article, his fiancée stopped calling after a month in the US, then had an abortion, married a Vietnamese-American man, and moved to Seattle. One of the informant’s sources of information about her activities was, surprise!, Facebook.
What did the informant known as “Lan” get for blowing the whistle on what a US prosecutor called “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States”? Depression, loneliness, death threats, and absolutely nothing from the government he helped at great personal risk. Compare and contrast that to what Mike Sestak and others involved in the sale of US visas received or will receive, sooner or later.
Question: Whatever happened to the 489 Vietnamese who bought visas? How many are still in the US? How many were apprehended and deported?
Stay tuned. In the immortal words of one of my favorite folk philosophers, Yogi Berra, It ain’t over till it’s over!
Catching up with the Vos (3.6.13, Thanh Nien News)
Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City (6.6.12, An International Educator in Viet Nam)
US Consulate Officers Gone Wild (4.9.13, Vice)
US visa regulation flaws allow for embassy corruption (20.8.15, Al Jazeera)
Sestak sentenced, justice served? (26.8.15, Thanh Nien News)
This is for the wonks among you, a 39-page application for a search warrant (PDF). The property to be search was a white Apple IPhone. The iPhone is currently located at the Diplomatic Security Service Denver Resident Office, at 8101 East Prentice Avenue, Suite 550, Greenwood Village, Colorado, 80111, Evidence Storage Area, Shelf D. It belonged to Ms. Truc Huynh, one of the co-conspirators who is a Vietnamese national and a cousin of Binh Tang Vo, (She’s out of prison already, in case you were wondering.)