U.S. diplomat charged in visa-for-sale scandal

Embassy official in Guyana allegedly amassed fortune

April 11, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- U.S. diplomat Thomas P. Carroll apparently had no clue that he was a target of an investigation when he landed in Miami last month on a flight from the Caribbean nation of Guyana, where he had been posted for two years.

When he met that day at Miami International Airport with his successor as chief of the U.S. Embassy's nonimmigrant visa section, it was unlikely that Carroll knew he was being taped.

His pitch to his replacement, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, was as simple as it was chilling: "Carroll asked [his colleague] to approve approximately 250 U.S. visas in exchange for $1 million in United States currency."

Investigators say that since Carroll's arrest at his parents' home in suburban Chicago on March 17, the day after the airport meeting, they have uncovered a hoard of cash and gold bars in his safe deposit boxes, bank accounts and other investments totaling nearly $1.8 million. Much of the wealth was amassed, according to seizure orders and other documents filed in federal court, during the 12 months that the $49,000-a-year civil servant had authority in Guyana to decide who could enter the United States.

In a rare prosecution of a suspected visa-for-sale scheme, one of the largest such cases ever alleged by investigators for the State and Justice departments, federal agents acknowledge that Carroll probably would not have been arrested without the cooperation of his successor.

The diplomat pleaded not guilty last month to charges that include bribery, conspiracy and fraud and is being held without bail in Chicago. Halim Khan, a Guyanese businessman charged with aiding him, is being held in Miami.

The investigator's affidavits filed in the case against Carroll, which identify his replacement only as a "confidential witness," charge that, to avoid detection, the 32-year-old diplomat corrupted the visa system at the embassy in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown.

Carroll allegedly denied requests for U.S. visas from some qualified visitors while selling visas to others, so as to avoid issuing excessive numbers that would draw the attention of his superiors and anti-fraud investigators.

The case underscores the difficulty of policing the activities of the 800 or so U.S. diplomats in 230 consulates worldwide who have authority to issue much-coveted U.S. visas. It is the second federal prosecution of visa fraud by a U.S. foreign service officer in more than a decade; the first ended in acquittal. Yet investigators and congressional critics fear that the illegal sale of visas is more widespread than the few prosecutions indicates.

A State Department official interviewed last week in connection with the Carroll case said the difficulty lies in the broad discretion given to visa officers under State Department regulations. The rules also require embassies to destroy application documents after a year because there is no system to preserve the large volume of paperwork. About 8 million visa applications were processed worldwide in 1998.

In part because of that regulation, the official said that despite extensive audio tapes that will be used as evidence in the Carroll case, investigators are struggling to determine the number and identity of any undeserving visitors that may be in the United States as a result of the alleged scheme.

"This is a very important case because it sends a strong signal: Don't sell visas," said the official, who asked not to be named. "But it also shows it's very, very difficult to make these kinds of cases because of the environment in which these diplomats work. Under the law, they have a huge amount of discretion in what they issue and what they don't."

The official added that agents of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, which shares responsibility for internal investigations with the department's inspector general, have presented more than a dozen such cases in recent years to their superiors or Justice Department prosecutors, who most often decided there was insufficient evidence to win convictions.

In Carroll's case, court records show, the internal investigation began last June after two "confidential sources" made allegations in Guyana.

Those sources asserted "that they had been solicited by intermediaries for the purchase of United States visas ... and that they had a contact at the U.S. Embassy who could secure the visas in exchange for money," according to sworn affidavits signed by Christopher Baker, a Diplomatic Security Service investigator .

Subsequent investigation led investigators to Carroll as the embassy contact and Khan as his broker, the affidavits state.

Baker's affidavits allege that Carroll told his replacement to hide money in safe deposit boxes in the United States because "those things are as safe as anything. ... And then they can't -- nobody can say, `Hey, your bank account's growing.'" Carroll said he would be the "primary contact concerning the sale of visas" and would share a portion of the profits, Baker stated.

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