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Guilty pleas entered in phony marriage scam

Five people have pleaded guilty in what federal investigators say was one of the largest immigration marriage scams in the Pacific Northwest.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two brothers, their two sisters and one sister’s boyfriend have pleaded guilty in what federal investigators say was one of the largest immigration marriage scams in the Pacific Northwest.

The four siblings recruited at least 130 people in and around Portland, Ore., and neighboring Vancouver, Wash., to pose as spouses for Vietnamese nationals who paid $10,000 to $30,000 each to obtain nonimmigrant visas through the phony marriages, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

“What I found amazing was they could approach 130 Americans who agreed to go along with this,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas B. Whalley said Monday.

Many recruits were gambling dealers or held other low-paying jobs in cardrooms and casinos in Tacoma, Shoreline, a suburb north of Seattle, and La Center, north of Vancouver, investigators said.

Phuoc Huu Nguyen, also known as Steve Nugent, 42, and Loc Huu Nguyen, 38, both of Vancouver, pleaded guilty last Thursday to conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, crimes punishable by up to five and 20 years, respectively.

Their sisters, Monica Nguyen, 30 and Amanda Nguyen, 28, both of Lynnwood, pleaded guilty last month to the same charges.

Everett Ledbetter, 34, of Lynnwood, also a suburb north of Seattle, identified as the younger sister's boyfriend, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to commit visa fraud.

Than Bui, 54, and Richard Earl Anderson, 36, both of the Seattle area, and Ryan Scott Daniels, 28, of Tacoma, also pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to commit visa fraud.

Those recruited could be charged
Investigators are trying to find 40 to 45 immigrants who entered the United States illegally, and 20 to 30 U.S. citizens who were recruited into the scam may face visa fraud or other charges, officials said.

Last year federal agents broke up a similar scheme in Orange County, Calif., with indictments of more than 40 people.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Thomas said the Portland-area scam was organized by the Nguyen brothers and he plans to recommend a stiffer penalty for them when they are sentenced in late June.

The guilty pleas follow an investigation that began in May 2003 and was headed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement with assistance from other federal and state agencies.

Ledbetter and the Nguyen brothers offered mostly young adults in minimum-wage jobs $500 to $1,500 and a ticket to Vietnam to participate, accompanied them and covered most of their expenses, including hotel, bar and restaurant bills, investigators said.

“One recruit said it was like being a rock star for a couple of weeks,” Thomas said.

Some recruits refused to participate after going to Vietnam and were threatened or intimidated by leaders of the scheme, government lawyers said in a statement without elaborating.

To make the phony marriages appear legitimate, U.S. recruits and Vietnamese nationals were told to pose for pictures in three sets of clothing in areas around Ho Chi Minh City and to write love letters that were shown to immigration officials.

Authorities said the probe began with a tip about Americans pretending to be married to Vietnamese immigrants, and investigators subsequently noticed dozens of requests from young Portland-area men and women for expedited passports to go to Vietnam.

In late 2004 government officials suspended requests for fiancé visas for Vietnamese nationals as a precaution. The suspension was lifted the following April.