Early last month, a former top government lawyer got an especially warm greeting from a Senate panel considering a major overhaul of immigration laws. He was introduced as a "highly respected" expert whose insights were valued.
That May 2 appearance by Paul W. Virtue, former chief counsel of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, was one of many he has made since leaving the agency, where he worked for 16 years, ending in 1999. Virtue, a partner in a top Washington law firm, also has made frequent appearances on national radio and television programs and is frequently quoted in newspaper articles.
But what members of the Senate Judiciary Committee apparently did not know is that Virtue left the agency in the midst of an internal investigation into allegations that he had given preferential treatment to private companies, including AIS of Greenbelt, set up to market the investor visa program.
A two-page summary of the investigation obtained by The Sun shows that government investigators found that those charges are true. Virtue and his law firm have been hired to represent AIS, the firm he was said to have assisted improperly.
Under the investor visa program, created by Congress in 1990, foreign residents can obtain permanent U.S. residency by investing $500,000 to $1 million in U.S. enterprises. As The Sun reported two years ago, several companies with ties to former INS officials were quickly formed to market the visa program.
"Our investigation found that Virtue repeatedly assisted these questionable investment partnerships to obtain investment visas for their clients. The two largest partnerships were headed by former high-ranking INS officials," the report by the Justice Department's inspector general states.
"Specifically," the summary says, "we found that Virtue made a series of suspect decisions that directly benefited these investment partnerships."
Reached by telephone, Virtue declined to respond to the report's findings, noting that no punitive action was taken. He said he considers the 3-year-old report "old news."
INS officials did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the inspector general's report, Virtue acknowledged in an interview with investigators that his actions violated longstanding INS policies and procedures.
"Virtue admitted to numerous mistakes and regrets in the administration of the EB-5 program," as the investor visa program is formally known.
Virtue's law firm, Hogan and Hartson, has registered as a lobbyist for AIS, one of the largest investor visa companies. Virtue has acknowledged contacting former INS officials on behalf of that company.
The inspector general's report states that AIS directly benefited from a series of actions by Virtue.
"In September 1997, Virtue presided over meetings in which INS granted unprecedented and unilateral privileges to AIS. These privileges, which involved the disposition of 202 AIS petitioners, violated longstanding INS policies and procedures and resulted in a very substantial windfall to AIS," the report states.
The 202 petitioners were foreign businessmen seeking U.S. citizenship.
"He [Virtue] strongly denied any intent to financially enhance AIS, but admitted his decisions very much did so," the report says.
It describes AIS as "the largest and most suspect partnership." Officials of the firm did not respond to a request for comment. A former INS general counsel and a former INS commissioner both served as legal counsel at various times for AIS.
No action was taken against Virtue because, by the time the investigation was completed on Oct. 21, 1999, he had resigned, the report says. The report notes that the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore had concluded that there was "insufficient evidence" to charge the private companies with fraud.
But that may not be the end of the story.
Internal INS memos show that a renewed effort to investigate the 12-year-old investor visa program is under way.
A two-page March memo to Stuart Anderson, executive associate INS commissioner, outlines an initiative to investigate the program and warns that abuse of the investor visa program "raises serious national security concerns."
The memo says that while the 1999 investigation found that $300 million was transferred into the United States illegally under the EB-5 program, it left open questions as to the origins of the money or its ultimate destination.
"Similarly," the memo continues, "open questions remain as to the background of the vast majority of the alien beneficiaries of this program."
Another recent memo sent to Assistant INS Commissioner Joseph R. Greene urges a comprehensive investigation of the entire investor visa program, citing "significant evidence of wrongdoing already in the INS' possession."