U.S. Seldom Prosecutes Visa Officer Fraud Cases
When he was dismissed from his post as a senior U.S. diplomat here, Charles Matthew Parish braced for what he expected would be a grueling investigation of his activities.
His superiors accused Parish of using his position to grant visas for friends, of accepting gifts in excess of strict State Department limits, and of improper fraternization with Chinese women. Several of the women accompanied Parish on trips back home to Los Angeles and Phoenix, where they all stayed free of charge as guests of the representative of a Chinese state trading company.
Parish, an ex-Marine who was on his fourth foreign assignment for the State Department, acknowledges acts that appear to violate a State Department code of conduct during his tour as chief of the visa section in the busy Beijing consulate. When he was removed from Beijing in May 1996, he said he was prepared for the worst--a criminal investigation into whether he had broken bribery or visa fraud laws.
Embassy security officers sealed his office, seized documents and barred Parish from coming back.
But there was no timely follow-up. Instead, Parish, now 52, was transferred to Washington, assigned a sensitive post in the State Department, sent on special assignments abroad and awarded a merit raise. Eventually he retired on an annual pension of $43,000.
The Parish case illustrates the slow, cumbersome and spotty way that the State Department and the Department of Justice handle problems among U.S. diplomats, including visa officers. About 800 diplomats in 230 consulates have the power to issue one of the world’s most coveted documents--the visa that grants permission to enter the United States. These diplomats regularly face what one former official called the “terror” of the visa line--from death threats to heart-wrenching pleas, as well as offers of bribes from desperate applicants.
The vast majority of these diplomats resist temptation. But those suspected of issuing visas in exchange for money, gifts or sexual favors often are allowed to retire or move to another post rather than face extensive investigation or prosecution. The lack of strong action against them weakens the nation’s “first line of defense” against illegal immigration and internal security threats, as well as State Department morale.
Despite his dramatic departure, two years passed before Parish directly faced FBI and State Department investigators. Even then, it took something special: His name surfaced in connection with the U.S. presidential campaign finance scandal.
FBI agents interrogated Parish about visas he issued to Chinese friends of Johnny Chien Chuen Chung, who has told federal investigators that he was given cash by the chief of Chinese military intelligence to support President Clinton’s reelection.
But by the time FBI investigators got to Parish, key visa records had been destroyed. The State Department generally requires that successful visa application documents be held for only one year. State Department investigators arrived on the scene even later.
“By the time they finally got here,” said a former consular officer in Beijing, now assigned to Washington, “the trail was completely cold.”
Now the investigations are heating up again because of new allegations by Chung. Sources said Friday that Chung, who is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, told federal investigators that he witnessed Parish accepting a bag of cash from an executive of a Chinese brewing company in an apparent exchange for visas. Parish denied the allegation.
Diplomats Take Posts or Retire
Current and former State Department officials, as well as critics in Congress, say the Parish case fits into a broader pattern.
Of a dozen cases known to The Times, a majority of diplomats suspected of wrongdoing in issuing of visas retired or were moved to another post. Cases that were opened took years to develop and usually ended up being dropped.
In 1995, former Consul General Richard Peterson was allowed to retire quietly after being removed from his post in Manila in the face of suspicions that he had granted special favors to clients of two Los Angeles immigration attorneys.
An African-based diplomat left his post in 1996 amid allegations that he traded visas for money and business opportunities. Although a grand jury investigation is ongoing, that diplomat remains in the foreign service and last year was awarded a prestigious assignment in Washington.
Joe Davison, then the State Department’s chief criminal visa fraud investigator, said in an interview that three diplomats who were under investigation for suspected wrongdoing retired in 1997.
Another Asian-based diplomat was removed in 1998 because he was suspected of granting visas as a favor to his local girlfriend, The Times has learned. That diplomat has since been transferred to another post in Washington.
Punishment for diplomats suspected of visa irregularities rarely appears to extend to firing--or prosecution. Federal authorities have prosecuted only one U.S. diplomat for visa fraud in the last decade; that 1997 case resulted in an acquittal.
The impact of misconduct by consular officers is far broader than the relatively small numbers imply.
For the vast majority of diplomats who play by the rules, the actions of one errant officer who goes unpunished can hurt the morale of an entire consulate--as does a State Department disciplinary process that can take years.
“It’s demoralizing to find people walking the corridors who should be disciplined and are not,” said Dan Geisler, a veteran foreign service officer who now serves as president of the American Foreign Service Assn., a de facto diplomats union.
Two State Department agencies, the Office of the Inspector General and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, have overlapping authority to investigate visa fraud involving diplomats, generating frequent rivalries and jealousies. And both struggle with an elite State Department culture that nurtures secrecy and a preference to deal discreetly with problem diplomats.
While acknowledging that their procedures are drawn out, State Department officials say the fault for the lack of prosecutions lies largely with the Department of Justice, which is reluctant to act on cases referred for criminal prosecution.
But inside Justice, prosecutors point to the enormous latitude given consular officers. These diplomats have wide discretion--based on a brief review of a written application and a short interview--to determine whether applicants appear honest and likely to return home after visiting the United States. Prosecutors say this makes it virtually impossible--and costly--to prosecute them successfully, even when evidence points strongly to wrongdoing.
Yet opportunities for corruption in the country’s elite foreign service have never been greater. Not all illegal immigrants sneak into the United States on rusting ships or under strands of barbed wire.
Visas Obtained Through Bribes
Consular offices issue nearly 6 million short-term visas annually. Officials estimate that about 40% of the more than 5 million illegal immigrants now thought to be in the U.S. entered the country legally, often on valid visas issued at U.S. consulates overseas. While certainly a minority, an unknown number of these came on visas obtained through bribery or fraud.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of China have pumped masses of new high-risk visa applicants into the system. As a result, the street value for a U.S. visa can be $20,000 or more.
Desperate applicants may try to curry favor with diplomats.
A consular officer who served in Sao Paulo, Brazil, recounted how female visa applicants would often slide their “portfolios” containing nude photographs under the counter with their visa applications.
Dennis Halpin, the diplomat who replaced Parish in Beijing, remembers one Thanksgiving eve when a courier arrived at the front gate of the embassy with two fully cooked turkeys “stuffed” with visa applications. Halpin sent the turkeys and visa forms back.
In 1994, James Waller, a former consular officer in Bombay, reported to authorities that he was offered $130,000 by a travel agent to issue visas in 30 altered Indian passports. Waller participated in an investigation that led to the travel agent’s arrest.
But not all American diplomats behave so admirably.
For two years, until he was dismissed, Parish was first secretary and consul at the Beijing embassy, putting him in charge of one of the busiest U.S. consulates in the world.
In a lengthy interview with The Times in March, Parish admitted accepting free lodging worth hundreds of dollars on several occasions--in Phoenix and suburban Los Angeles--from the Phoenix representative of a Chinese state-owned trading conglomerate. The free stays, Parish acknowledged, came after he had reversed a subordinate’s decision and approved a visa request submitted by a representative of the company, China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuffs Import & Export Corp. (Cofco).
Afterward, Parish said, he granted visas on several other occasions to representatives of Cofco.
A State Department “Standards of Conduct” guide issued to all diplomats prohibits acceptance of any gifts, favors or entertainment valued at more than $20 “from anyone who appears to be offering the item of monetary value because of your official status or position.”
Receiving such gifts, the guide warns, may violate federal bribery laws. Also on the books are laws carrying stiff jail sentences for visa fraud.
During the interview, Parish also confirmed that he, his Chinese girlfriend and his sister were Chung’s guests at a $1,000-a-plate Democratic fund-raiser in Century City attended by both the president and the vice president. Previously, Parish had helped Chung obtain visas for his Chinese associates so they could travel to the United States.
Sources said Friday that Chung has told federal investigators that he saw Parish accept the cash in 1996 from an executive of Haomen Group beer company. The bag contained about 10 Chinese passports and the approximate equivalent of $15,000 in Chinese currency, the sources quoted Chung as saying.
Haomen executives, accompanied by Chung, visited the White House in December 1994 in an effort to establish a U.S. market.
Parish angrily denied the allegation and said he did not know He Yei Jun, the beer company executive who allegedly provided the bag of cash and passports at a Beijing hotel.
“That’s total and utter nonsense,” Parish said in a telephone interview. “That’s absurd. It did not happen.” The ex-diplomat said he did not recall ever having approved a visa for any Haomen officials.
Meanwhile, the House Committee on Governmental Reform, the congressional panel investigating campaign financing, sent a subpoena to the State Department seeking records on Parish. “The department will be taking appropriate steps to comply with the subpoena,” said Stephen McCreary, an attorney with the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor.
Parish, in the March interview, also acknowledged obtaining visas for his girlfriend and her friends. And he admitted taking his embassy secretary--a Chinese government employee required to make regular reports to Chinese intelligence authorities about activities in the embassy--with him on a trip to the United States.
Parish, who served as consular officer in El Salvador, Bangladesh and Nepal before Beijing, denies any quid pro quo in these cases. He said all recipients were legitimate applicants who merited visas, often wealthy businessmen and high party officials.
However, he added: “I’ve had to be honest with myself: I screwed up.
“What I regret,” Parish said, “is putting myself in a position where the appearance of impropriety takes place.” His mistakes, Parish said, were mostly the result of his affection for the Chinese people and his generally gregarious nature.
Several Parish co-workers reported their concerns to the embassy security officer and a visiting team from the inspector general’s office, which investigates allegations of employee misconduct.
Ambassador James R. Sasser’s decision to dismiss Parish was preceded by a small-scale mutiny of the diplomats who served under him. Three of those officers have since left the foreign service, citing the Parish episode--and the lack of State Department follow-up--as one factor in their decision.
Cases Costly to Investigate
Although complaints about the diplomat’s behavior helped prompt his removal from Beijing, diplomats and others say they were never contacted again once Parish was reassigned back to Washington.
“After Charles [Parish] left,” said Kai Ryssdal, who served under Parish in Beijing, “there was zero interest in this from diplomatic security or the Department of State.” Ryssdal, whose wife, Stephanie Fossen, also left the foreign service, said he was “baffled beyond belief, astounded, amazed” by the failure of authorities to investigate further.
“I was clearly under the impression that there was going to be substantial follow-up after he [Parish] left,” Sasser said. “Later on I was surprised to find out that he had another job. . . . I thought maybe he got himself straightened out.”
A senior investigator from the inspector general’s office, citing State Department policy, declined to discuss any aspect of the Parish case, including the delay in follow-up. But members of Congress worry that cases such as that of Parish are part of a far larger problem.
“I’m concerned that the lack of a strong management response to problems such as malfeasance in office by State and other foreign affairs agency employees . . . may have far-reaching effects on the ability of those agencies to accomplish their missions,” Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, wrote to State Department Inspector General Jacquelyn L. Williams-Bridgers in a 1996 letter.
The letter triggered a 1998 report by the inspector general’s office that concluded the department’s disciplinary process was long, costly and cumbersome. Officials at the inspector general’s office say they have worked to speed up their investigations after the report was issued.
The increasingly important role played by American consular officers makes policing of corruption or malfeasance, and criminal investigations when merited, that much more important.
John D. Negroponte, a retired diplomat who served as ambassador to Honduras, Mexico and most recently the Philippines, had the dubious distinction of having dismissed two consecutive U.S. consuls general in Manila, a high-volume visa post where he served as ambassador from 1992 to 1995.
The first consul general fired by Negroponte was John Henry Adams, who in 1997 was tried and acquitted on charges of visa fraud before a federal court jury in New Hampshire.
Adams admitted in court documents that he granted visas to three Thai women to “help a friend” later imprisoned in the United States as a heroin trafficker. Prosecutors alleged a sex-for-visa scam. But Adams denied any wrongdoing and said he didn’t know that the women were prostitutes engaged in the transnational Thai sex trade or that his “friend” was a trafficker.
Authorities point to the Adams case as epitomizing the difficulties of prosecuting diplomats.
A bad decision granting a visa, in and of itself, is no crime. To convict, a prosecutor must prove the diplomat knew the applicant was unsuitable, then benefited personally from the transaction.
A single defense witness, who testified about the wide discretion available to consuls general, was enough to win Adams’ case in court.
The Adams prosecution, officials say, also underscores how difficult and costly such cases can be to investigate. They typically require the cooperation of foreign governments and the dispatching of agents to far-flung locales.
“We prosecute someone who offers a $50 bribe to get rid of a parking ticket because we know even small crimes are corrosive, but the resources required to deal with a case that happens overseas makes it a tough call,” said a veteran prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.
Also, officials caution, any allegations of consular wrongdoing must be approached with a degree of skepticism. Visa racketeers regularly boast falsely of their “friendship” with unsuspecting consular officers to boost credibility with clients willing to fork over thousands of dollars.
In high-demand nations such as China and Mexico, consular officers frequently develop reputations as being easy or hard on visa seekers. Some applicants deliberately seek out those rumored to be more receptive. Varying visa approval rates, however, are usually just the result of differing interpretations of applicants’ qualifications in what is far from an exact science.
Adams was replaced in Manila by Richard Peterson--a 30-year diplomat with previous postings from Brussels to Bermuda to Mexico. Peterson was known as a model of probity: a family man nearing retirement and devoted to his two young children and his English-born wife. Peterson was also an experienced hand, having headed the busy consular offices in both Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez, the latter across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
Ultimately, though, his ambassador and other superiors said Peterson would stumble in Manila, his fall precipitated by two frequent visitors to the U.S. Embassy complex.
The two visitors to the consulate made a practice of flashing a badge and identifying themselves to guards as “INS officers,” according to diplomatic and law enforcement sources and documents.
INS Probes Underground Process
An official investigation revealed that the two were actually a pair of Los Angeles attorneys--Leslie J. Frank and Martin Simone--who had set up shop in Manila’s five-star Diamond Hotel to represent Filipinos seeking visas. The badge was issued not by the federal government’s Immigration and Naturalization Service but by the Los Angeles city human relations commission, of which Frank was a member, appointed by Mayor Richard Riordan. Frank had known Peterson socially since one of the diplomat’s previous tours.
The investigation by the INS and local authorities showed that the badge-toting lawyers took turns escorting Filipino clients inside the consulate for an “exclusive interview” with Peterson, according to an official summary of the case. The lawyers’ hotel telephone records showed regular contact with Peterson on both his direct office line and at his residence.
During July 1995, about 40 clients were granted interviews with Peterson, who issued visas to all but two of them, Simone acknowledged in a recent interview at his corner office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The lawyers charged each successful applicant $5,000 to $10,000, Simone said.
Under questioning, official documents show, Peterson denied ever having knowingly adjudicated a visa application for one of the lawyers’ clients. Personal adjudication of visa cases by consuls general, though not unheard of, is frowned upon in State Department protocol, particularly in large, high-volume consulates.
Investigators stopped and questioned Frank at the consulate. In his credential case, they found the badge. Philippine authorities briefly detained Frank on suspicion of impersonating an officer, but he was released and left the country. Simone had already returned to Los Angeles.
Frank declined all comment on the case. But his partner, Simone, denied that the lawyers had ever posed as immigration officers or otherwise acted improperly.
Peterson was immediately suspended pending “the outcome of a full investigation” by the State Department.
A review by the deputy consul in Manila, Kevin Herbert, concluded that the clients presented by the two attorneys “appeared to be clearly unqualified / ineligible for” visas, the government summary said. Within days, Peterson was on a plane back to Washington. He retired within weeks.
Peterson, interviewed for more than an hour in the driveway of his suburban El Paso home, denied any wrongdoing, and there is no evidence that he profited from his association with the lawyers. The former Manila consul general portrayed his early exit from Manila as entirely voluntary, timed to accompany his school-age children back to the United States in time for the fall school term.
“My departure from Manila, as far as I know, was at my own request,” Peterson said in the only public statement he would agree to make.
After Manila, Peterson said he was never again interrogated by State Department investigators. Nor were Frank, Simone or the key diplomats who worked with the consul general. Peterson retired on a full pension.
‘I Am a Nice Guy’
Like Peterson, Charles Parish has retired. He has been living recently in his parents’ home on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The ex-diplomat, a loquacious, sturdy 6-footer who likes mountain biking in the surrounding desert hills, spends considerable time contemplating his days in China.
He says he feels betrayed by both Chung and his former girlfriend, Zhang Fan, who he contends exploited his friendship.
Parish attributes his actions to his love of China, his affection for Chinese people and his gullibility. He said he was put off by the often hostile and adversarial attitudes of his fellow diplomats toward the Chinese. In Parish’s view, he was on a one-man mission to repair this negative outlook. An article in a Beijing magazine even mentioned this “kind” officer.
Upon his forced departure from Beijing, Parish says he was convinced that his diplomatic career was over. But he was cautiously pleased when he was given a new job in Washington reviewing security risks for Iranian and Iraqi visa applicants.
In the summer of 1997, the State Department sent Parish on special assignment to Rio de Janeiro. The following October, Parish, by then working in a job he loved with State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Scientific and Environmental Affairs, was awarded a merit raise. Parish was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan, in late 1997.
Parish did not decide to retire until early 1998, when FBI agents questioned him and his sister about the campaign dinner in Century City and Parish’s relationship with Johnny Chung. He finally left last May with a combined 28 years in military and foreign service, qualifying him for a full pension.
These days, the ex-diplomat reads classic Chinese literature and tries not to let soured relationships turn him against the Chinese culture and people.
“I just had this discussion with my parents,” Parish said. “They are hearing these things about their son. But they also know that I am a dearly, dearly beloved friend of many, many Chinese. I don’t want to forget that--and that I am a nice guy. Stuff happens. Maybe I should have been more careful.
“Part of my confusion is: Was I just being dismissed? Or was I being sent home under some criminal suspicion?” Parish recalled. “To this day, I don’t know.”
This story was reported by Times staff writers Rone Tempest in Beijing, Hong Kong and Manila; Tempest and Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles, El Paso and Las Vegas; Tyler Marshall in Washington and Paris; and Maggie Farley in Shanghai. Also contributing were Times staff writers William C. Rempel in Los Angeles and Alan C. Miller in Washington, and Anthony Kuhn in The Times’ Beijing Bureau.
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What Is a Visa?
A visa is a stamp placed in a passport by the government of a country that a traveler wishes to visit. The visa allows the traveler to apply for entry--for a specific purpose: i.e., to work, visit, attend classes, or medical treatments.
Nonimmigrant visas: for temporary visits, such as vacations. A visa is required by citizens of every nation except Canada and about two dozen others.
Immigrant visas: for those seeking to move here permanently, usually sponsored by relatives or an employer.
Visas Issued in 1997
Nonimmigrant: 5.9 million
Nonimmigrant: 1.4 million
Temporary visas issued at U.S. Foreign Service posts
High Fraud Posts
State Department investigators say these sites are among the “high fraud posts,” where visa fraud is most prevalent.
Port au Prince
How Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas are Obtained
1. Applicant applies at one of the 230 U.S. Foreign Service posts.
2. Photo, processing fee, passport and application are submitted.
3. Applicant must demonstrate that he or she will return home to their nations. This usually requires evidence of family or other ties that ensure their return.
4. Consular officers review paperwork and may interview applicant for further information.
5. Officials check names against “lookout lists” of people barred from entering U.S. such as criminals or terrorists.
6. If applicant clears process, visa may be issued within days.
Countries Where the Most U.S. Visas are Issued
South Korea: 619,011