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Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam – In what the prosecutors had dubbed “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a foreign service officer in the history of the United States”, last week a court in Washington DC sentenced 44-year-old Michael T Sestak to 64 months in prison.
Sestak’s lawyer, Gray Broughton predicts he’ll be out of prison in a little over two years, telling Al Jazeera, “Michael Sestak is a good man who made a huge mistake.”
The career diplomat, decorated police officer, former US Marshall and a lieutenant commander in the US Naval Reserve, spent most of 2012 rubber-stamping visa applications at the US consulate in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh city, while a Vietnamese-American family funnelled him millions of dollars in bribes.
Prosecutors claimed that before being exposed by an informant , Sestak’s co-conspirators collected as much as $73,000 per visa, and that much of this money remains hidden overseas.
Together, the conspirators sold an estimated one percent of all non-immigrant visas issued at the consulate in 2012, according to Bureau of Consular Affairs figures and Sestak’s sentencing memorandum, and generated millions of dollars in profits.
In public court filings, prosecutors estimated that the scheme generated $9.7m in seven months. Sestak’s attorney estimated it may have generated over $15m, much of which remains hidden overseas.
A loose system
Observers say the case is symptomatic of the inadequate monitoring mechanisms within the US embassies and consulates.
“The first line of defence for this sort of thing is a supervisor, and if the supervisor is bad, then you got a problem,” explained Steve Bucci, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has served as a defence attaché at various US embassies.
Bucci further noted that consular work is often conducted by either junior officers or foreign service staff, who operate with little oversight – often in countries where official bribery is simply the way of doing business.
“The system is very loose,” thinks Bucci.
Sestak’s case raises questions about the extent to which the US state department monitors its own operations.
An audit released in February 2012 reported that visa protocols were weak in the Ho Chi Minh city consulate – the same month that prosecutors say Sestak’s scheme began
The Bureau of Consular Affairs declined to discuss why internal controls hadn’t caught Sestak before the informant tipped off the state department’s inspector general’s office, and it is unclear whether absent that informant, Sestak would have ever been prosecuted.
In April, Inspector General Steve Linick, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department Management, Operations and Development that his office remains uniquely hamstrung in cases like Sestak’s.
“Unlike other OIGs [Office of Inspector General], my office is not always afforded the opportunity to investigate allegations of criminal or serious administrative misconduct by department employees,” Linick said during the hearing.
Linick’s office has also raised alarms about the global absence of a clear system for tracking gifts received by US diplomats , as well as a department-wide failure to hold supervisors accountable for criminal fraud perpetrated by their subordinates.
History of corruption
The Inspector General is operating in a system that has traditionally addressed administrative misconduct with a slap on the wrist approach.
The attacks on the World Trade Center Towers inspired additional efforts to screen US visa applicants for possible terrorist ties, as Bucci pointed out – and all of Sestak’s customers underwent such screenings. But screening for official corruption is a more sensitive issue.
Only 35 state department employees have been convicted of consular malfeasance since the department brought its first criminal case against a foreign service officer in 1998.
According to an LA Times investigation , prior to this time, most offenders were simply reassigned or sent home.
Although now, US embassies have a policy of “zero tolerance for malfeasance”, a state department official told Al Jazeera.
Raymond Burkhardt, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Vietnam, recalled three cases of bribery that took place in the Philippines alone – only one of these cases developed into a criminal investigation with charges brought against the perpetrators, but it ended in an acquittal. The cases were detailed in the LA Times report.
“Occasionally someone will be tempted to go astray,” Burkhardt told Al Jazeera. “Fortunately, this system does catch them.”
Department of State (DOS) officials insist there are now effective structures in place to deal with such fraud.
“The Bureau of Consular Affairs continually monitors its operations for vulnerabilities and takes action as quickly as possible, which is why cases such as this are rare,” the DOS spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email.
“We work closely with our law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate all allegations of visa fraud,” the official said. “When substantiated, we seek to prosecute and punish those involved to the fullest extent of the law.”
A spokesperson at the Diplomatic Security Service told Al Jazeera the agency presents each case of possible wrongdoing to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which decides whether to file criminal charges, and that the matter is handled administratively only if they decline.
The State Department did not provide requested figures for how often that happens.
Insiders say the US has no effective system for tracking when foreign visitors overstay their non-immigrant visas – making the temporary document tantamount to a one-way ticket into the country.
The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington DC, a think-tank that researches immigration issues, has published a number of articles detailing how little the state department knows about what becomes of non-immigrant visa holders.
ICE will not go looking for someone who obtained a visa or benefit through fraud, unless they want them as a witness.
Last year, one analyst at the centre reported the Department of Homeland Security had delayed nine times the creation of a biometric exit programme which would help track those who overstay their visa in the US.
Sestak’s co-conspirators took full advantage of this loophole.
According to court documents, they advertised the scheme as a way to “enter into sham marriages” or “just disappear” once in the US.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) did not provide any specific answers to Al Jazeera’s request for information about what has become of the 489 Vietnamese nationals who paid Sestak and his co-conspirators thousands of dollars to enter the US, saying it would take weeks to answer such a question.
“ICE places a high priority on investigating document and benefit fraud,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email.
Jessica Vaughan, a former foreign service officer told Al Jazeera that “visa fraud is not on the list of crimes that makes someone deportable under current policies, even if someone were to be prosecuted”.
“ICE will not go looking for someone who obtained a visa or benefit through fraud, unless they want them as a witness,” Vaughan, who has since become a policy analyst, explained.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington DC, agrees.
Although the state department claims to do everything in its power to prevent malfeasance and protect the integrity of the US visa, Krikorian questions how it possibly could without a system for tracking those who overstay their tourist visas – a demographic, he said, that comprises of 60 percent of new illegal immigrants to the US.
“[Consular malfeasance] is a crime, but what the crime is facilitating, illegal immigration, is not something the State Department [cares] about,” he told Al Jazeera.
In the meantime, the State Department finds itself struggling to keep up with the world’s growing desire to visit and possibly remain in the US, which would further strain department resources and personnel.
“The US mission in China processed more than 1 million visa applications in 2011,” an audit of the Visa Services Directorate noted. “The mission believes that within 10 years, annual demand for visas in China could jump to 10 million.”
Given this forecast, whether or not the DOS will be able to improve its monitoring and tracking mechanisms at the embassies and in the US remains a key issue for US legislators.
Though most politicians describe the nation’s existing immigration system as ” broken ” a bi-partisan reform bill passed in 2013 that contains an entire section on reforming non-immigrant visa programs remains stuck in a kind of legislative purgatory.