No-Contest Plea in Citizenship Scheme

Times Staff Writer

A Tunisian man pleaded no contest Tuesday to filing a false marriage certificate as part of a matchmaking scheme for Middle Eastern men seeking U.S. citizenship.

The alleged matchmaker, Sharon Whiteside, 45, of Winnetka, was paid $4,000 to $10,000 each time she arranged a sham marriage to an American woman, authorities said.

Officials said the women were paid $1,000 each after the marriage documents were notarized and received $500 a month for the year the men had to wait before they could end the marriages and still qualify for citizenship.

Sarhane Benmeftah Zquaoui is one of three foreign nationals charged with felonies related to their marriages to U.S. citizens. The men could face deportation.

Deputy Dist. Atty. William Ryder said the men applied for marriage certificates that required them to swear that the couples lived together, even in cases in which they had met only hours before. Their wives were granted immunity for their testimony, he said.

Another defendant, Tarek Ayari, also a Tunisian national, was bound over for trial Tuesday after a judge found adequate evidence to support the allegations.

Ayari brought utility and phone bills with both his and his wife's names on them and a photograph of them dressed in bridal attire with a wedding cake, Ryder said. However, Ayari's wife testified that she did not live with him and that the photograph was taken at his house at his request, the prosecutor said.

Whiteside, who pleaded guilty last week to three counts of helping the men file phony marriage certificates, was sentenced to three years of probation.

Another defendant, Jasmeet Sethi, who holds an Indian passport, remains at large.

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