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Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of California

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Last Defendant Sentenced In Marriage Fraud Scheme

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — United States District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. sentenced Sergey Potepalov, 58, of Citrus Heights, today to two years and three months in prison for directing a marriage fraud scheme, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced. He was the last of nine defendants to be sentenced in the case.

According to court documents, Potepalov, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Russian descent, was 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 that 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 court documents, co-defendant Keith O’Neil, 47, of Sacramento, entered into two sham marriages and accompanied Potepalov on three trips to Moscow. He filed petitions for fiancé visas for four women from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia; all of the petitions were ultimately denied.

The other defendants sentenced in the case were either foreign nationals who attempted to obtain fiancé visas and “green cards” or U.S. citizens who agreed to enter into sham marriages with the aliens in return for promised payments of up to $5,000. 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. All have pleaded guilty and sentenced as follows:

Keith O’Neil sentenced to 18 months in prison
Marla Brennan, 33, of Sacramento, sentenced to six months prison and six months home confinement
Richard Vargas, 39, of Sacramento, sentenced to one year in prison
Olga Nekrasova, 29, of San Francisco, sentenced to four months in prison
Brian Barnes, 35, of Sacramento, sentenced to 10 months in prison
Anthony Rivera, 38, Sacramento, sentenced to two years in prison
Veranika Koushal, 35, of West Palm Beach, Fla., sentenced to two years of probation
Marlena Colvin, 30, of Sacramento, sentenced to 10 months of probation

U.S. Attorney Wagner said: “Potepalov essentially built a business out of phony marriages between U.S. Citizens and persons who sought citizenship. 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.”

“Marriage fraud and other immigration benefit fraud schemes undermine the integrity of our legal immigration system and potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve,” said Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge of HSI Sacramento. “America’s legal immigration system is not for sale—and as this sentence makes clear —HSI will aggressively target those who conspire to corrupt the integrity of that system simply for personal profit.”

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.

“Immigration scams meant to circumvent our laws are a cruel insult to those who wait patiently to immigrate, respectful of our laws,” said Mari Carmen Jordan, district director of USCIS Sacramento District. “We’re proud of the work our Fraud Detection and National Security unit did to reveal this scheme, including site visits, interviews and in-depth research.”

This case is the product of an investigation spearheaded by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 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 Michele M. Beckwith prosecuted the case.

Press Release Number: 
Docket #: 2:11-cr-295-MCE
Updated April 8, 2015