Federal trial opens in investor visa fraud case

Foreigners lost money, did not get U.S. visas

March 29, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - A key prosecution witness in a multimillion-dollar visa fraud case testified yesterday that one of the defendants admitted to him that what was being done with investors' funds was illegal.

Simon Oliver of Sarasota, Fla., one of several victims to testify on the trial's opening day in U.S. District Court here, said he had found that money that was supposed to be kept in an escrow account had been diverted.

Oliver testified that in a phone conversation with defendant James A. Geisler, "I told him, `What you're doing is illegal,' and he said, `Yes, but we need to do it.'"

Geisler was a principal of the Interbank Group, a Herndon, Va., company set up to market a program under which foreign investors such as Oliver, a British native, could become permanent U.S. residents by investing $500,000 to $1 million in an American business.

Geisler, 47, and James F. O'Connor, 43, both of Virginia, are on trial on charges detailed in an 80-page indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in August. The charges include visa fraud, bankruptcy fraud, income tax charges and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Their activities were described last year in a series of articles in The Sun.

In an opening statement yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer said the scheme centered on the investor visa program, established by Congress in 1990 to ease immigration for foreigners willing to invest in struggling U.S. businesses.

Geisler and O'Connor, he said, engineered a scheme to sell the program to unsuspecting foreigners by telling them they could qualify with an investment of as little as $100,000.

As part of the scheme, Spencer said, the two filed more than 300 false visa applications with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He said the scheme included fake loan documents to make it appear that investors were investing the required amount and running money through offshore bank accounts.

O'Connor and Geisler, acting as their own attorneys, said in opening statements that Interbank's investor visa program was no different from those being offered by other companies.

"Each client knew that he was supposed to invest $500,000," said O'Connor. "There was no smoke and mirrors."

Pranaya Shrestha, a native of Nepal now living in Denver, testified that he and two members of his family signed up for the Interbank program after being assured that only a $100,000 investment was required for each application.

He testified that his family scraped together $360,000 to cover the cost of three applications and $20,000 in processing fees, only to find that the visa applications were rejected. Then he learned that the investment money that was supposed to be kept in a separate bank account had been raided.

Shrestha said he demanded his money back, but never got it. In the meantime, he said, his father suffered a heart attack triggered by concerns about the visa investment.

"I filed for bankruptcy and my father lost all of his retirement money," Shrestha said.

Under cross-examination by O'Connor, Shrestha acknowledged signing a series of loan agreements, but said he was assured repeatedly that the loan money was coming from Interbank and would never have to be repaid.

He testified that some of the signatures on INS forms submitted for himself and his family were forged.

Another witness, Mark Siljander, a former Michigan congressman who joined Interbank as a consultant, testified that he left because of serious concerns about the integrity of the company, how it was being managed and how clients' funds were being handled.

Siljander said he repeatedly asked for an independent audit of Interbank's operations, but none was conducted.

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