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Calif. visa scam allegedly helped prostitutes

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Beverly Hills man was arrested Wednesday on charges that he used his English language schools as a front to get student visas for Russian prostitutes and other ineligible foreigners.

Behzad "Ben" Zaman, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iran, was arrested by federal customs agents at the Concord English Language Center on Wilshire Boulevard near downtown.

On Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Zaman on 14 counts of fraud and misuse of visas, conspiracy and money laundering, according to a statement from federal officials. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 210 years in prison.

Zaman operated Concord and another school, the International College for English Studies, authorities said.

Zaman could not be reached for comment. Calls to both schools were not answered Wednesday.

'Legitimate students' at schools
Federal agents did not close the two schools, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"There are legitimate students that go to these schools and there are real classrooms," Kice said.

However, Zaman also charged thousands of dollars in "tuition" to "students" who were kept on the enrollment books even though they were not attending classes, authorities contended.

The indictment specifically cited more than $320,000 Zaman allegedly received from illegal activities, authorities said.

The schools claimed to have more than 1,000 students early this year but in fact could not physically hold them, the statement said.

In fact, some of the "students" were people from Uzbekistan and Latvia who were ineligible for student visas, according to the indictment.

"Russian and Latvian women prostitutes were posing as English-language students," alleged an affidavit for a search warrant.

'Flagrant violation'
The number of allegedly phony students was not disclosed. However, the case is believed to be one of the largest student visa fraud schemes uncovered on the West Coast, said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs and Enforcement office of investigations in Los Angeles.

"This flagrant violation of our immigration laws shows how greed can compromise our national security," U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said in a statement. "We welcome legitimate students who want to take advantage of educational opportunities in America. We do not welcome individuals posing as students who have no intention of studying and who simply want to gain access to this country."

The search warrant affidavit said a woman from Thailand told customs officials that she paid $2,000 a year to obtain immigration status from International College but did not attend classes.