Visas for gems: Indian American jeweller, US diplomat indicted

February 27th, 2009 - 11:07 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 27 (IANS) An Indian American jewellery executive and a former Toronto-based US diplomat have pleaded guilty to trading gemstone rings, trips with exotic dancers and other gifts in exchange for expedited work visas.
According to court papers, Sunil Agrawal, the chief executive officer of New York-based STS Jewels, gave presents to Mike O’Keefe, who was the deputy non-immigrant visa chief at the US consulate in Toronto. In return, O’Keefe personally fast-tracked applications for STS.

Agrawal worked out a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to the misdemeanour charge of illegal supplementation of salary, which his lawyer said he hopes will not threaten Agrawal’s immigration status in the US. The charge carries up to a one-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine.

O’Keefe pleaded guilty to accepting an illegal gratuity, a felony that carries up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Both men were indicted Wednesday on bribery and conspiracy charges by a federal grand jury in Washington in the court of US Judge Paul Friedman. They pleaded guilty to lesser offences that carry much shorter maximum prison terms.

Prosecutors say O’Keefe approved 21 visas for foreigners sponsored by STS Jewels. Emails between the two men cited in court documents show that O’Keefe personally handled STS applications and conducted the interviews himself on a fast track.

With the US tightening controls over non-immigrant visas to students, tourists and workers since the Sep 11, 2001 terror attacks, O’Keefe wrote to Agrawal that after more than 20 years as a State Department worker, he was growing tired of the visa arguments and frustrated with younger subordinates who were “determined to find problems” and reject STS applications.

He overturned their rejections, even when a subordinate noted that terrorists use jewellery to raise money.

As part of the plea deal, O’Keefe must return jewels he received - a ring that Agrawal gave to O’Keefe worth more than $3,000 and a tanzanite ring, ruby necklace and ruby ring for O’Keefe’s wife.

O’Keefe also must pay $5,000 to compensate for airfare, hotel rooms and other entertainment that Agrawal funded for the diplomat and two exotic dancers who accompanied him on two trips from Toronto to New York and Las Vegas.

Of the Las Vegas trip, O’Keefe wrote that it was “where I can lose my stiff diplomatic persona and just act like everyone else”.

O’Keefe is to be sentenced June 19 so he can finish the semester at Southern New Hampshire University, where he is now a professor.

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