United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner
Eastern District of California
Fourteen Charged in Marriage Fraud Scheme
|FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE||
CONTACT: Lauren Horwood
July 26, 2011
PHONE: (916) 554-2706
Docket #: 2:11-cr-295-MCE
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced the unsealing of a multiple-count indictment charging Sergey Potepalov, 55, of Citrus Heights, and 13 other defendants with conspiracies to commit marriage fraud, to defraud the United States, to make false statements, and to induce an alien to enter and remain in the United States. The co-defendants are as follows:
Keith O'Neil, 44, of Sacramento;
Marla Brennan, 30, of Sacramento;
Dumitru Sisianu, 25, of Jacksonville, Fla.;
Richard Vargas, 36, of Sacramento;
Alina Turcan, 26, of Jacksonville, Fla.;
Pavel Berezenko, 54, of Sacramento;
Olga Nekrasova, 26, of San Francisco;
Brian Barnes, 32, of Sacramento;
Anthony Rivera, 35, Sacramento;
Veranika Koushal, 32, of West Palm Beach, Fla.;
Yuriy Korzhov, 47, of Roseville;
Marlena Colvin, 27, of Sacramento; and
Aleksandr Krivokhizhin, 38, of Southampton, Mass.
Potepalov, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Russian descent, was taken into custody at his residence in Sacramento Monday morning by federal agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Agents also arrested five of the other individuals charged in the indictment.
According to court documents, the defendants were involved in an elaborate immigration fraud scheme involving foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and Russia who paid up to five-figure fees to enter into sham marriages with locally recruited U.S. citizens in an effort to legalize their immigration status. For foreign nationals, marriage to an American citizen is one means of obtaining lawful permanent residency in the United States. To initiate that process, aliens who are outside the country must apply for a fiancé visa, which enables them to travel to the United States to marry the citizen spouse. Alternatively, foreign nationals who are already in the United States and entered the country legally, may wed here and apply for lawful permanent residence based upon the marriage. Upon entry to the United States, they might also apply for political asylum.
According to affidavits filed in the case, Keith O'Neil was a man Potepalov met in a Sacramento bar. In 2002, O'Neil entered into a sham marriage in South Lake Tahoe with A.G., an alien from Russia. Between 2003 and 2005, O'Neil accompanied Potepalov on three trips to Moscow and filed petitions for fiancé visas for four other aliens. These women were from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. All of the petitions were ultimately denied. In 2007, O'Neil entered into a second sham marriage with J.S., an alien from Romania. In 2009, A.G. applied for naturalized U.S. citizenship, but that application has not been granted.
The other defendants charged in the indictment include six foreign nationals who attempted to obtain fiancé visas and "green cards" through the scheme and six local U.S. citizens who agreed to "marry" the aliens in return for promised payments of up to $5,000. For example, the indictment alleges that on August 7, 2007, Dumitru Sisianu, a citizen of Moldova, entered into a sham marriage with Marla Brennan in Reno as part of Potepalov's scheme. That same day, also in Reno, Sisianu's girlfriend, Alina Turcan, a citizen of Moldova, entered into a sham marriage with Richard Vargas that was also arranged by Potepalov.
The indictment alleges that some of the participants in the scheme received immigration benefits before they were caught. For example, Yuriy Korzhov, an alien from Ukraine, married a U.S. citizen in Russia as part of Potepalov's scheme and gained entry to the United States on a spouse of a U.S. citizen visa. Likewise, Veronika Koushal, an alien from Belarus, entered into a sham marriage with a U.S. citizen, Anthony Rivera, in Reno in 2003 as part of Potepalov's scheme. Koushal ultimately became a naturalized citizen based on that marriage, although that naturalization may be revoked if proven to be based on fraud. Likewise, another defendant, Aleksandr Krivokhizhin, was an alien from Ukraine who entered into a sham marriage with a U.S. citizen as part of Potepalov's scheme in 2006. Krivokhizhin, based on that marriage, was able to bring his son into the United States too.
In June 2009, ICE HSI agents executed federal search warrants at Potepalov's home and business, seizing numerous boxes of documents relating to immigration applications as well as computer files. Documents filed in the case reveal that participants in the scheme went to significant lengths to make the sham marriages appear legitimate: posing for wedding pictures together, establishing apartments in both spouses' names, and rehearsing false answers for interviews with immigration officials.
U.S. Attorney Wagner said: "The indictment in this case alleges that Mr. Potepalov essentially built a business out of phony marriages between U.S. Citizens and persons who sought citizenship. As this 14-defendant federal fraud indictment attests, our office is committed to prosecuting those — aliens and U.S. citizens alike — who try to profit from circumventing our immigration laws through fraud and deceit."
"America's legal immigration system is not for sale and we will move aggressively against those who compromise the integrity of that system simply to enrich themselves," said Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge for ICE HSI in Sacramento. "Immigration benefit fraud is a serious crime. Not only does it potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve, it also creates a security vulnerability that could be exploited by criminals and others who pose a danger to our community. People who use ruses like this in an attempt to obtain a green card should be forewarned, if you commit marriage fraud, there isn't going to be a honeymoon."
According to documents filed in the case, ICE HSI first began investigating Potepalov's activities in 2006 after receiving information from the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service indicating the immigration consultant was filing fraudulent visa petitions on behalf of Russian and Ukrainian nationals. As the investigation progressed, HSI agents worked closely with personnel from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS) Fraud Detection and National Security Unit (FDNS) in Sacramento to identify aliens who may have sought to benefit from the scheme.
"Our Fraud Detection and National Security program participated in site visits, interviews and data mining to support ICE Homeland Security Investigations in making this case," said Susan Curda, district director of USCIS District 22. "We are proud that our ongoing cooperative efforts with our partner agency at the Department of Homeland Security are helping to curtail this kind of criminal activity in our communities."
This case is the product of an ongoing long-term investigation spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with substantial assistance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service. Assistant United States Attorney Daniel S. McConkie is prosecuting the case
The maximum statutory penalty for the first three conspiracies in the indictment is up to five years in prison. The latter conspiracy carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
The charges are only allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
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