When Visa Officers Went Bad
Consular officers are often the face of the U.S. government overseas. They are the ones interviewing visa applicants, dealing with prospective adoptive parents, helping U.S. citizens who have had their passports stolen or gotten in a scrape with the law. It can often be a demanding job, with weekend calls as duty officer or the emotionally draining meetings with people who unexpectedly lost their loved ones during a trip abroad [See Dealing with Death]. Consular officers, like other FSOs, routinely endure hardships in service to their country. In rare instances, for reasons of venality or misplaced sympathy, they may take a wrong turn.
In his oral history interview, former Assistant Regional Security Officer (A/RSO) Walter B. Deering recalled a visa officer who could not resist the lure of the money to which he had access. John Allen Cushing was a consular officer in the Dominican Republic from 1988 to 1990 and discusses how visa applicants desperately tried to cheat their way into the U.S., and how some visa officers, in turn, tried to take advantage of that desperation. Michelle E. Truitt was Chief of the Office of Fraud Prevention Programs from 1986 to 1990 and discusses the Washington angle of a visa fraud case originating from Embassy Madrid. Deering was A/RSO in Madrid from 1986 to 1988 and talks about the same case from Embassy Madrid’s perspective and what drove the consular officer, who was in a prime position as the anti-fraud officer, to go rogue. Read other consular stories.
“We had a lot of fake marriages”
John Allen Cushing, Dominican Republic
I started out with immigrant visas and I did immigrant visas for a while. They were remodeling the consulate at the time. First we had a little cubicle or office and people came in, right into the consulate and saw us and we had a stack of cases on our desk and we’d do those and we had no time off for lunch so I’d just take in a can of tuna and some crackers and eat the tuna and crackers while I was working. We didn’t have a lunch break; it was a very high volume place.
There was a considerable amount of fraud; a woman would say she had, so many children, she would claim people on her immigrant visa who were not hers. There would be one baby born in, say, September of ’69 and then there would be another kid born in March of ’70 and then another kid born in January of ’71 or something. I’d say, “These can’t possibly be all your children.” “No, look each one is in a different year, look at that. ’68, ’69, ’70. There’s no problem whatsoever. I don’t know why you are bothering about this,” and so forth. We had a lot of fake marriages.
Q: Where were they going? Mostly New York?
CUSHING: Mostly to New York, some to Miami. There would be an entire package. There’d be phony wedding pictures and a phony marriage license and we’d have all these cases where a 55-year-old Puerto Rican woman came to the Dominican Republic and fell in love with a 20-year-old cab driver on the way from the airport to the hotel and they got married three days later. I still remember one. This fellow claimed that his fiancée, I guess his fiancée had a green card in the U.S. and was petitioning for him. I said, “Do you have any letters that would show proof of a continuing relationship?” So he took a letter off the top of the stack and handed it to me and it said, “José, I am sending back the ring. Send me my clothes. I know what you have been doing. If I ever see you again I am going to cut your heart out and feed it to you.” I said, “Wow, this doesn’t look like she is ready to get married to you.” He said, “Oh, can I see that letter? Uh, women get emotional sometimes.”
I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. At one point there was a woman who had a bunch of kids and there was one girl and I said, “This is a little fishy here. Would you tell me what is going on?” And she said, “Well, listen. This is our niece; both her parents were killed in a car crash when she was an infant. We have raised her as our own child. We registered her as our own child. She is not my biological daughter but I love her just the same as my regular children.” I said, “Well, OK, we’ll include her in the visa package, but don’t ever tell anybody else this.”
We had one guy who was deaf, dumb, and blind and tested positive for venereal disease. Occasionally we’d get someone who was HIV positive and didn’t know it. I didn’t want to be the one to tell him, so I’d say, “We’ve got a little problem with the process here. I think you need to go see your physician and talk to him about this.”
So the immigrant visas were fairly routine. They would try to fraudulently include children. There would be fraudulent marriages and so forth. When I worked on non-immigrant visas, I probably should have refused more people. I had kind of a soft heart. So other people were refusing nine out of ten and I was refusing maybe six out of ten. I expect there are a lot of people who overstayed their visas because I didn’t want to turn them down.
There was this one girl who needed medical treatment. She had a brain tumor. She came in with a shaved head. I started looking at the papers and she burst out crying. I said, “Que paso (What happened?)” She said, “No quiero morir (I don’t want to die).” So I said, “OK, if you stop crying by the time I count to ten, I’ll give you a visa.” So she did.
There was a Haitian gentleman who was both a medical doctor and a minister and he had a letter that he was going to a conference of Methodist ministers in Illinois somewhere. I thought well, he looks like a high-class gentleman. So I gave him a visa and about three or four weeks later my supervisor called me over. At that time we had no computerized name checks. We had microfiches with names of people on a watch list, but they were always months out of date. There was no way to telephone from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. So I gave this fellow a visa. I thought, medical doctor, minister going to a religious conference in the U.S., fine.
About four weeks later my supervisor called me to his office and he said, “Did you give a visa to a Haitian named Roger Lafontant?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Oh. Well, he’s the head of the Ton-ton Macoutes. He went to Miami, bought a boatload of guns and came back and was involved in an aborted coup.” I said, “Oh.” He said, “The next time you get a Haitian applicant, would you check with me first?” I said, “Sure, I can do that.”
Q: For someone reading, the Ton-ton Macoutes is the sort of the mafia and enforcers of the Duvalier regime, a pretty scary bunch of guys.
CUSHING: One time there was another Haitian and I refused him. So he reached into a pocket and put a whole bunch of dust on the window. There was a window of bulletproof glass and there was a little slot through which you could pass documents. So he threw this whole bunch of dust down on his side and he cupped up his hands and blew it, so this enormous cloud of powder came all over me and he said, “You refused me for a visa. This is magic juju dust and you are going to die.”
Q: Well, you’re still here.
CUSHING: Yeah. So I dusted myself off and said, “Next.” We had a fellow who wanted to take his grandson to Disney World in Orlando and he was a dentist. He had a couple of suitcases with him. I said, “How do I know that you are a dentist?” He said, “Wait a minute.” He brought up one of the valises to the window and opened it up and it was full of all the teeth that he had pulled. I said, “Oh, OK. How do I know that you have enough money for your trip to Disneyland?” He said, “Oh, wait a minute.” He opened up the other valise and it was jammed with these wads of one and five dollar American dollar bills. I said, “OK” and gave him a visa.
Trading Favors for Visas
Some of the younger guys were trading visas for the favors of young ladies. If they saw an attractive young woman…
Q: You are talking about vice consuls.
Q: Sex has always been a big problem.
CUSHING: Yes. I was married, so I never got into that, but what they’d do is they would grant the visa and they’d leave their name card inside and say, “Let’s discuss your visa case further” or something. Sometimes they would append the visa and say, “Well, we’ve got a couple of little details that need to be worked out” and then they’d write their name and number on the card and slip it in the passport.
There was a woman once who said she’d like to meet me privately. I refused her and she said, “I’d like to meet you privately to discuss this case” and I said, “I don’t think that would be appropriate, thank you.”
I got a passport once with a hundred dollar bill in it. When I flipped it open there was a U.S. hundred dollar bill and so I immediately called the
consular officer in the next booth. I said, “Would you come over here, witness that this passport contains a hundred dollar bill which I have not touched?” Then I called my supervisor over and said, “My neighboring vice consul is willing to testify that this passport contains a one hundred dollar bill that I have not touched.”
The applicant was saying, “Oh, my goodness. How did that get in there? I must have forgotten it when I was sorting through my papers.” So we gave him back his hundred dollar bill and his passport and told him to get lost. There were a lot of fraudulent documents.
And the Culprit is… the Anti-Fraud Officer
Michelle E. Truitt, Chief of the Office of Fraud Prevention Programs
Q: Was malfeasance a problem? How did you deal with malfeasance?
TRUITT: Malfeasance was always treated on a very close hold basis. In fact, I myself handled all of the malfeasance cases for the office. I dealt directly with my supervisors in the Bureau of Consular Affairs on the issues involved, because these were highly sensitive. I had a wonderful working relationship with my colleagues in DS [Bureau of Diplomatic Security]…. The degree of trust was virtually absolute between our offices. That is a critical element when you’re dealing with malfeasance.
I had one significant malfeasance case. It tickles me when I think about it now because of the way it developed. We thought that we were having problems with bad visas issued in Madrid. We couldn’t tell if they were artfully prepared outside of the embassy in Madrid or whether it was a matter of malfeasance. However, they all seemed to involve Iranians. During the period from 1986-1990 that was a hot button issue.
Other things also happen in government. I got this phone call one day, saying: “I’m shutting down, Michelle. The government’s run out of money. We’ve decided that no one in the anti-fraud area is essential to the operations of the U.S. Government. So you and everyone else are to go home.” I said: “Wait a minute. You know, sometimes we have serious work that we do here.” The answer was: “Nope. You’re not essential. Go home.” So I sent everyone home except one of my division chiefs who said: “No, I can’t do that.” I said: “I’m going to stay here, too. I just can’t abandon the office.” For this, he had the reward of getting an assistant U.S. Attorney hot on one of our cases, which was nice.
However, I got the case of the year. I received a call from Miami International Airport from a man with whom I had done a training course. He said: “Michelle, I have a man here. I don’t believe that he has a valid visa. It appears to have been issued in Madrid.” I said: “Hold him.” I immediately called my colleagues in DS who, of course, were critical to me. I said: “We may have either a good lead here on a wonderful counterfeit visa or we may, in fact, be playing into these allegations of malfeasance that we have been hearing about Madrid.”
DS immediately contacted Miami. They questioned this man. In fact, he admitted that he had obtained the visa through malfeasance. He had bought it from one of our consular officers in the embassy in Madrid. This Iranian came from a very wealthy family. He was very upset that he was caught and when they went to court he literally threw up in the judge’s chambers. He was just beside himself.
He was our lead into what had been a history of malfeasance in the embassy in Madrid.In fact, our instincts were right. They were valid visas and they were being issued for money by the anti-fraud officer in the embassy in Madrid!
Q: My God!
TRUITT: Right. In fact, the case led to this officer’s indictment, subsequent prosecution, and severance from the Foreign Service. I’m not saying anything that is improper or that I couldn’t tell in the public area. In fact, I can remember the day when this officer was arrested in the State Department and taken away in handcuffs by our Diplomatic Security officers.
Later on, at a meeting, I said: “I hope that the next time that we re-think, when we have to draw down radically, we need to have somebody in the Anti-Fraud Office.” The person who had told me to go home said: “Oh, that will never happen again.” I said: “That is not the issue.” I was absolutely dumbstruck at this comment. When people take a position, they generally don’t move from it. I am sure that if we had shut down the office, as we were directed to do, that case of malfeasance might have gone unnoticed.
Problems arise when consular officers do not speak the local language
Q: I realize that this was a specific case and that the person involved was convicted. But just to get a feel for it, had this practice been going on for some time, not only in Madrid but elsewhere? Or was this, as far as you were concerned, a single case that you got?
TRUITT: We would have maybe a couple of dozen allegations of malfeasance every year. Of those, perhaps one every year was true. We had a couple of allegations of malfeasance in the passport agencies at the same time. We had a passport examiner who was, in fact, selling U.S. passports, bringing in the applications herself, processing them, and sending them out. She was collecting money for them. So this is the kind of thing that you must be ever vigilant about and think about your internal controls. A lot of people, though, were the subjects of allegations because people didn’t get the passport or visa that they wanted. We had a very vigorous malfeasance program.
There are always people that are tempted. The amount of money that can be made by such activity is pretty staggering, if you decide to be a corrupt official. A good U.S. passport sold abroad and altered will easily bring in anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Can you imagine what the price would be for a U.S. passport that has not been altered? People will pay $1,000 for a visa. A valid visa is worth a whole lot more than that. You start to see people that lose their perspective. Whenever such a case came up, we sort of bled for the organization because we treasured the integrity of our colleagues. But then you just have to go at it every once in a while.
Q: You had spot places like the Dominican Republic where there were cases of fraud. If you’re in an area where you know that everything is available, including money, sex, blackmail, and whatever you want, were you able to respond by sending out teams, instructions, guidance, or anything of that nature?
TRUITT: We spent some time, probably not enough, but some time identifying what a good internal audit is, especially affecting the Foreign Service National [FSN] staff [locally hired people, usually citizens of the country concerned]. This was especially the case in countries where a lot of our own consular officers did not speak the local language. Seoul was a prime example of this. I know of two occasions where we literally fired FSNs because we believed that they were involved in malfeasance. The same thing occurred in Bangkok. Again, Thai is not a language that most people in the Foreign Service study. In fact, Foreign Service Nationals get very skilled in understanding the system, and some of them see the money to be made by being corrupt.
We would say to our consular officers, as managers: “You’re responsible for a spot audit. You’re responsible every three months to audit this and audit that. If you don’t do that and later on it is clear that there is malfeasance by your subordinates, you are also responsible because you are not auditing your staff.” We would try to do a good job in preparing our Diplomatic Security colleagues going out on trips overseas. We would say: “Please talk with the consular officer because they have all of these interests.” We would say to people: “Every once in a while you have to ‘stop the music.’ You have to go in and account for the cash. You have to review how the lookout process is being handled. You have to account for how the visa foils are being accounted for. You have to make sure that you can account for the passports we sent you. If you don’t do that, you’re not doing your job and you’re allowing Foreign Service Nationals to take over doing the job.”
However, time after time, malfeasance would occur in places where, I think, language skills were not as good as they should have been. In places where that language is only spoken in that country and is not easily transferable in terms of a Foreign Service Officer’s career we’re not going to invest huge amounts of time and make sure that an officer is really fluent in that language.
Q: And if you do provide such training to a Foreign Service Officer, they almost invariably wind up, after a very short time, in the political section.
TRUITT: Right, because they can talk to officials.
“It was the worst of the Foreign Service. It also showed that the system worked”
Walter B. Deering, A/RSO, Madrid
We got a call one day from, I guess it was from Washington, that Immigration in Florida had called DS headquarters and said, “Hey, we got a situation here. We got this Iranian we grabbed because we looked at his passport and he got a visa, a legitimate visa, in Madrid, Spain.
But when we questioned him he said he’d never been to Madrid, Spain and there was no stamp on his passport, on his Iranian passport, that showed that he had entered, that he had ever entered Spain. He couldn’t answer any questions about how did he get this visa.” “Well, I just got it.” And then another one popped up, somewhere along the east coast of Florida.
So we determined early on that these were, in fact, legitimate visas issued in Madrid. I mean by “legitimate” they weren’t counterfeit. So
we had a real problem, then, on our hands, major problem. What’s going on here? Well, again, this is the fall of 1989. I’d gotten there in the summer. And, with everything else going on, we then had to launch a major internal investigation in conjunction with the consul general and bring him into our confidence and of course the ambassador, DCM. Something is wrong here. This has got major ramifications. There are visas being issued here in Madrid to at least we know two Iranians; we don’t know how many more. It turned out there were quite a few more.
What happened was, there was a very aggressive assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Florida, in Miami, who said, “I’m going after this. This is my case now, it popped up first, first entry in Miami.” He took over the investigation under the direction of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and once that happens then you can’t just let these things go. We worked very closely with the consul general, who was very upset. This can’t be happening on my watch, kind of thing, what’s going on here.
Well, we started the investigation in a couple different directions. One, looking at how these passports were getting into the embassy, who might be involved. Who’s involved in the embassy? We determined that it had to be an American. We also determined that there was another individual involved. We did some phone checks. We did some other checks. And we found out that there was a consular officer who happened to be the chief of the anti-fraud section who had some classic bones to pick with the system. I think it was at the consulate in Belfast and the IRA had blown up a car across the street. He had gotten hurt in the explosion. His household goods had been lost at sea and he’d been passed over for promotion a few times. We found out that, on home leave, he had been seeing an Iranian doctor or had some connection to an Iranian doctor out on the coast of California. We then determined that this was a person that was bringing these passports in. And through basic police work with the Spanish authorities, we found the guy had been at a hotel at the time that phone calls were being made in it and visas were being brought in. We put the whole package together.
Then the ambassador basically had to call in the consular officer and say, “You’ve got two choices here. You can curtail, go back over complement, while we resolve this thing or I will declare no confidence.” He left, went back to Washington. Investigation continued, of course. The consular officer was a very popular member of the embassy community. And when word got out, the reputation of the RSO and myself became sullied, that we were on a witch hunt. This was because people didn’t know what was going on. It was a difficult time and it went on for about three or four months. Also, the consular officer in question had a major accident right before Christmas outside his house, where he fell down off a ladder and had shears go into his throat. Unfortunately, the doctor who did the surgery and the person who found him believed it was a suicide attempt. It was a very, very unfortunate chain of events. Ultimately, the officer in question was arrested back in Washington and he spent three years in prison for visa fraud. We still don’t really know the amount of what he was getting in return; it may not have been significant. It was the worst of the Foreign Service. It also showed that the system worked.
Q: For somebody listening, to put in context, when you say Iranian visas, one today thinks in terms of terrorists, particularly in those days. Well for years, Iranians have been trying to get into the United States, getting the hell out of their country. These were often families of relatively well to do people. As a consular officer, as soon as an Iranian would show up, anywhere, you’d say, “Oh, my God” because they were basically shopping for visas. We had Iranians coming in from American Samoa.
DEERING: But what was wrong here was that none of the Iranians ever came to Spain. They were never there. The visas were being brought in and the problem there is you don’t really know what you have until you can find all the people, as you’re well aware. Were there ever any indications that terrorists were using it? No, I don’t think we ever determined that, but I’m not sure that we ever found out how many there were….
U.S. passport and visa are the gold standards for all other documents. It was a major problem. These cases become public knowledge when an arrest is made. I’m trying to remember, I don’t know if there was even a trial, I think there was a plea agreement on that one. Still, it’s out there. It’s part of the Foreign Service training. Greed, greed has no social [boundaries].
Q: I’m not condoning it at all, but sometimes it’s compassion. Sometimes there isn’t even money involved. Sometimes there’s sex too.
DEERING: Oh, yeah. Believe me, I’ve seen them all. I’ve been involved with many of them. You’re right, there is, with the visa, if you have a weakness, a character weakness and you’re in that position, that certainly is one of the positions in the Foreign Service, other than on the espionage side, where you can be exploited. People think exploitation’s only for intelligence matters. Not true.
Q: No. Tell me, this of course puts you in a very difficult position when you’ve got information that you can’t share with the rest of the community. Did you find that the rest of the Foreign Service community in Madrid, sort of came around to realize what had happened?
DEERING: I think ultimately, yes. It stretched out for a long time. I think it was at the time I was leaving that things were finally, totally resolved. But I can remember, with people who were close to him, nobody ever was nasty, it was just little snide remarks: “Don’t you have something better to do?” When you’re conducting an investigation you do not divulge what you’re doing. It’s not a matter of discussion for the community. Unfortunately it becomes discussion.
Q: And erroneous data.
DEERING: And erroneous data and people don’t want to believe that the guy that they went to dinner with, the guy that they socialized with, the guy they worked with, my God, no, no, not him. “What are you guys doing?” I had one political officer basically say that to me. He pulled me aside in his office, “Let’s talk about this thing.” It was his wife who found the consular officer lying on the ground that day when he fell off the ladder, and they were very close. They lived in the same neighborhood. “Come on, come on, what are you doing, what are you doing? This is crazy. You can’t be focusing in here.” I said, “Look, it will go where it goes and I’m not going to discuss it with you.” Oh yeah, myself and the RSO, Gary Schatz, we took some shots on that but in the end…
Q: Well, it’s what you’ve got to do.
DEERING: You gotta do what you gotta do.