April 10, 2000, Seattle Times - Los Angeles Times, Diplomat charged in visa-for-sale scandal, by Mark Fineman,
MIAMI - U.S. diplomat Thomas Carroll apparently had no clue he was a target of investigation when he landed in Miami last month on a flight from the Caribbean nation of Guyana, where he had been posted for two years.
And when he met that day at the Miami International Airport with his successor as chief of the U.S. Embassy's nonimmigrant visa section, it was unlikely Carroll knew he was being taped.
His pitch to his replacement, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, was as simple as it was chilling: "Carroll asked (his colleague) to approve approximately 250 U.S. visas in exchange for $1 million in United States currency." [$4,000 per]
In fact, since Carroll's arrest in suburban Chicago on March 17, investigators say they have uncovered a hoard of cash and gold bars in his safe-deposit boxes, bank accounts and other investments totaling nearly $1.8 million. Much of the wealth was amassed, according to seizure orders and other documents filed in federal court, during the 12 months the $49,000-a-year civil servant had authority in Guyana to decide who could enter the United States.
In a rare prosecution of a visa-for-sale scam -- and one of the largest such cases ever alleged by investigators for the State and Justice departments -- federal agents also acknowledge that Carroll probably would not have been arrested without the help of his successor.
The diplomat pleaded not guilty last month to charges that include bribery, conspiracy and fraud. He is being held without bail in Chicago. Halim Khan, a Guyanese businessman charged with aiding him, is being held in Miami.
The investigators' affidavits filed in the case against Carroll, which identify his replacement only as a "confidential witness," charge that, to avoid detection, the 32-year-old diplomat undermined the visa system at the embassy in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown.
Carroll allegedly denied requests for U.S. visas from some qualified visitors while selling visas to others, so as to avoid issuing excessive numbers that would draw the attention of his superiors and anti-fraud investigators.
The case shows the difficulty of policing the activities of the 800 or so U.S. diplomats in 230 consulates worldwide who have authority to issue much-coveted U.S. visas. Investigators and congressional critics fear that the illegal sale of visas is more widespread than the scant number of prosecutions indicates.
A State Department official said the difficulty lies in the broad discretion given to visa officers under State Department regulations, which also require embassies to destroy application documents after a year because there is no system to archive the large volume of paperwork. About 8 million visa applications were processed worldwide in 1998 alone.
"It's very, very difficult to make these kinds of cases because of the environment in which these diplomats work," said the official, who asked not to be named. "Under the law, they have a huge amount of discretion in what they issue and what they don't."
Diplomatic Security Service investigator Christopher Baker states in his affidavits that Carroll sought to corrupt his replacement as chief of the nonimmigrant visa section during several conversations in Guyana in late February and early March.
Evidence introduced during a detention hearing in Chicago last month indicated that Carroll's replacement secretly recorded those conversations. Court documents quote Carroll as saying he had amassed "over a million dollars" during his tour of duty in Guyana.
Baker's affidavits allege that Carroll told his replacement to hide money in safe-deposit boxes in the United States because "those things are as safe as anything. . . . Nobody can say, 'Hey, your bank account's growing.'"
Carroll said he would be the "primary contact concerning the sale of visas" and would share a portion of the profits, Baker stated.
The case has drawn the attention of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who in a March 24 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked for an accounting of all allegedly fraudulent visas Carroll issued in Guyana and an investigation into possible illegal visa sales during Carroll's previous postings in Taipei and Beijing.