Saturday, August 26, 2006

US Diplomat Charged in Visa Bribery Plot

This story interests me especially because my Russian and Uzbek students found it very difficult to get US visas for study or holidays--and my Argentine cousin, a young doctor, was turned down twice, despite letters of support from our family here, her passport stamped with the equivalent of a "Scarlet Letter" the second time around. We had to meet her in Canada (she had no trouble getting a Canadian visa). And I wonder how many more State Department consular officials whom we haven't yet heard about may be involved with the type of operation alleged in this story from the Toronto Star?:
A U.S. career diplomat, who worked out of the American consulate in Toronto, will be spending the weekend in jail in Washington — charged with accepting bribes that included jewellery and trips with exotic dancers to New York and Las Vegas in exchange for issuing visas to 21 people associated with a global jewel distributor.

Michael John O'Keefe, 59, appeared devastated as he heard the charges, slumping his head into his hands when prosecutors said he faced up to 15 years in prison.

He did not enter a plea, but returns to court on Monday for a hearing.

O'Keefe, who served as the deputy non-immigrant visa chief at the consulate, was charged yesterday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia with three counts of conspiracy and bribery.

Also charged was Sunil Agrawal, a 47-year-old native of India and the chief executive of the New-York based STS Jewels — a company with offices in the GTA as well as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Mumbai, Jaipur and Dubai. Agrawal is still at large.

If convicted on all charges, O'Keefe and Agrawal face five to 15 years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.

O'Keefe, who is from Portsmouth, N.H., has been with the State Department for 22 years.
Bloomberg adds:
The indictment included what the government said were e-mail messages between the two men. One from January 2005 referred to a Manhattan Hotel stay and a ring valued at more than $3,000.

`Received the Ring'

``I received the ring this afternoon and I am very grateful for your kindness,'' O'Keefe is quoted as messaging Agrawal, an Indian national with permanent resident status in the U.S. O'Keefe promised to speed up the visa application of a company employee and eventually issued 21 visas to people ``sponsored by'' STS, the indictment said.

Later that month, Agrawal hosted O'Keefe and two exotic dancers, identified as ``A.M.'' and ``M.S.,'' in New York, accompanying them to dinner and a Broadway show and paying their hotel bills, the indictment said.

The case is U.S. v. O'Keefe, 1:06-cr-00249, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).