US Foreign Service officer arrested in bribes-for-visas scandal

United States Foreign Service officer Michael O'Keefe was charged on Friday with accepting trips with exotic dancers, jewelry and entertainment in exchange for issuing visas to 21 people linked to an international jewel distributor. O'Keefe, aged 59 and a 22-year State Department veteran, was working at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto as the deputy non-immigrant visa chief.

An international jeweler, Sunil Agrawal, was indicted by a grand jury along with O'Keefe in Washington D.C. on three counts of conspiracy and bribery. O'Keefe was arrested on Thursday in Washington, the U.S. Attorney's Office said, while Agrawal remains at large.

The indictment said between 2004 and 2006 Agrawal gave round-trip airline tickets to O'Keefe and two exotic dancers to travel to New York and Las Vegas. Agrawal paid for hotels, expensive meals and entertainment during the trips. Agrawal also gave O'Keefe jewelry, other gifts and a job reference, the indictment said.

In exchange, O'Keefe helped expedite visa requests for employees of Agrawal's company, STS Jewels Inc. He issued visas to 21 people sponsored by Agrawal. Homeland Security is investigating all 21 people that were sponsored, and is looking into other persons associated with O'Keefe and Agrawal.

"U.S. Consular officials are on the front line of our border protection," said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein. "A consular official who violates the rules for personal gain not only erodes public trust in our visa system, but seriously jeopardizes our national security."

The indictment included excerpts of e-mails between O'Keefe and Agrawal detailing plans for their trips and requests for O'Keefe to help STS employees obtain U.S. visas. One e-mail shows O'Keefe overruled a co-worker who wanted to deny a visa to an Agrawal employee out of concern that al Qaeda uses the jewelry industry to raise money.

"Needless to say I overruled the decision and explained to them that major gem importers such as STS are not being used by al Qaeda," said the e-mail written by O'Keefe to Agrawal.

If convicted on the charges, O'Keefe and Agrawal face between five and 15 years in prison. All persons associated with the pair face many potential problems. Possibly some or all will be charged criminally, but even if no criminal charges are brought, all visas will be revoked. It is likely that all persons will be ineligible for re-entry to the United States for ten years, or perhaps longer, unless they are able to prove beyond all doubt they were innocent victims, if or when they attempt new visa applications.

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